Super Mario RPG: Still the best Mario role-playing game after 20 years

Twenty years changes many things, but this much is true: Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars is the best role-playing game starring a plumber with Boogie Nights facial hair and big ups. Many games have challenged the title held by this collaboration between Nintendo and Squaresoft. Paper Mario charms with its world of folding parchment people and its sprawling cast of goofy allies, each one a silly spin on enemies from the classic Super Mario Bros. games. Who doesn’t love exploring a ghost pirate island with a surly sea captain Bob-Omb? The Mario & Luigi games are equally charismatic. Time travel, trips inside Luigi’s dreams as well as Bowser’s internal organs, and characters like the indefatigable Fawful keep the bros-centric handheld RPGs delicious.

For all their character, though, none share Seven Stars’ flair for stretching the boundaries of Mario’s world. Putting art aside, no other Mario RPG nails the expert pacing of exploration, storytelling, and combat that makes Seven Stars still feel effortless after two decades.

From the moment Seven Stars starts, the game manages to both wholly capture the feeling of the Mario series while also feeling like this is a place where absolutely anything can happen. Mario rushes into Bowser’s castle to save Princess Toadstool--released in March ‘96, her highness was still six months away from being known as Peach outside of Japan--and the whole thing feels like a very literal interpretation of the game’s name. This is Super Mario Bros., the NES game from 1985, with Final Fantasy style turn-based combat. Then a skyscraper-sized sword with a smug, fanged face on the hilt smashes through the roof of Bowser’s joint and suddenly all the rules and expectations of what’s to come are smashed along with it.

Even by 1996, Mario was a character weighed down by perceived rules. Super Mario Bros 3 and World were vivid and imaginative games, no doubt, but they expanded on a base established in that defining NES original. Mario lives in a world where there are killer mushrooms and turtles working for a mohawked dragon man with antisocial tendencies and a penchant for blondes. These facts can be embellished on, but not done away with. Super Mario RPG treats Mario’s past as provincial; everything you’ve seen to date has been localized to just a chunk of the Mushroom Kingdom or Dinosaur Island or neighboring towns. It’s a big old world out there, full of huckster frog sages, cloud princes, and hilariously chubby tiger monsters that get extra licky when you fight them. There are rich beardoesobsessed with beetles living near towns whose sole business is mushroom-themed destination weddings.

While Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi: The Superstar Saga possess some of that diverse spirit in Super Mario RPG, they suffer somewhat from having to adhere to the rules established in their respective series and even in Super Mario RPG itself. The fourth wall-breaking humor that’s a trademark of all Mario role-playing games got its start back in the SNES original when Toad would run out to explain a little bit about jumping directly to the player. That’s no less delightful when it’s deployed in games like Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, but it’s also overly familiar.

So too is the perpetual need for a gimmick in each new entry; the perspective flipping of Super Paper Mario, the mapping of each brother to a specific button in Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time, or the sometimes tedious adhesive collection in Sticker Star. Super Mario RPG succeeded thanks to its inherent novelty--a role-playing game born out of the spare but iconic action of the platformers--but also its laser focus on a great story and great battles.

That’s not to indict the action in either of its successor series, but Super Mario RPG’s battle system is a perfect blend of visual humor, speed, and variety. The signature active turn-based combat started here and it was arguably perfect out the gate. Every weapon for each character requires you to time your button presses to get the maximum damage. Mallow’s Froggy Stick needs an extra button press precisely when he brings it down on some creepy shark pirate’s face. Bowser’s pet chain chomp will start chewing up that thieving purple alligator Croco the moment it hits him in his jaunty hat. Shifting between its five characters, all of them feel useful and specific. It’s hilarious seeing Toadstool wollop a goomba with an umbrella, then turn for a victory pose alongside Bowser and Mario.

The limited character selection in later games loses that pleasurable range, but that’s only half the problem. All but the easiest fights in Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi drag on for ages as they’re both naturally slower paced and overemphasize the active battles (do the Mario brothers’ jump attacks really seem cooler if there are 50 jumps in a row?). The audience participation aspect of fights in Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door are delightful, but having to sit through five full minutes of back and forth to kill just three basic goombas using just two characters dulls any humor and excitement there might be. Super Mario RPG keeps its battles cooking while also feeling just mechanically complex enough to satiate a veteran role-playing game fan.

That brisk pace keeps Super Mario RPG’s lovely adventure moving as well. One second you’re fighting a man-sized dagger named Mack the Knife outside Princess Toadstool’s castle and just a few minutes later you’re following a possessed wooden doll into the jungle to fight a crazy-eyed living bow. Never lingering too long on any dungeon or episode, Super Mario RPG’s laid out with maximum narrative economy and maximum character expression. Mallow’s journey to find his parents doesn’t come 30 hours after it’s introduced, giving you time to lose investment. The whole game takes just 20 or so hours to play through as opposed to nearly double that in most Paper Mario outings. Rather than drown the player in fight after fight, or repeating funny story beats until they lose their impact like in Thousand Year Door’s wrestling sidestory, Seven Stars never overstays its welcome.

So its structure remain and spirit remain sound on its 20th anniversary, but Super Mario RPG’s real ongoing success is that, for the right player, it’s just so damn easy to love. For me, the bulbous, almost Play-Doh-esque characters in their little pre-rendered diorama world feels just right. Mallow and Geno, the martini-swilling Valentina and her swole bird henchman, the endearingly indulgent members of Bowser’s displaced Koopa Troop; everyone you meet in the game is completely defined and impossible to forget. And Yoko Shimomura’s soundtrack? Right up there with her best work in Street Fighter 2 and Parasite Eve, but also of a piece with Koji Kondo’s immortal Mario themes. The game endures, and while many of the key creators that worked on it are still working on the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi games, their debut remains un-bested by those follow ups. Happy 20th, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. May your reign continue unabated.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

I've been playing games since I turned four in 1986, been writing about them since 1987, and writing about them professionally since 2008. My wife and I live in New York City. Chrono Trigger is my favorite game ever made, Hum's Downward is Heavenward is my favorite album, and I regularly find myself singing "You Won't See Me" by The Beatles in awkward situations.
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