Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, created through an unexpected collaboration between Nintendo and Square, is Super Mario meets Final Fantasy. The mechanics of an RPG are simplified for a younger audience, then combined with a little platforming and characters from the Mario universe. That may sound like a dubious proposition, but the final result speaks for itself.
Super Mario RPG came out late in the SNES's life cycle, just a few months before the N64 and Super Mario 64. As a teenager, I scoffed at the absurdity of Mario characters being in a childish-looking RPG. (Like many children, I was closed-minded.) As an adult, I learned that the game has an excellent reputation. The recent remastering of the game for Switch prompted me to give the original a try, which is on the SNES Classic.
In Super Mario RPG, a gigantic anthropomorphic sword named Exor crashes into Bowser's castle, casting him out and frightening everyone. To banish Exor and the leader of his gang, Smithy (the final boss), Mario teams up with Bowser! Peach (still called "Toadstool") joins them, sneaking out of the castle, where the Toads want to keep her safe. There are two new player characters: Mallow, a marshmallow raised by an old frog named Frogfucius, and Geno, a living star who possesses a toy doll. Geno is essentially a black mage.
The game is divided into worlds and stages shown on a world map similar to Super Mario World. The plot requires Mario and co. to collect seven stars. Every time they acquire one, they are directed to the next one in the next world in a linear progression. This is one of many ways in which the game simplifies the traditional role-playing formula to make it more accessible for younger players who were coming from Super Mario games. Another simplification is that magic points, called Flower Points (FP), are shared among all characters. As they level up, each character gains spell-like abilities (six in total) that use FP. Whenever a character levels up, you choose one aspect that gets an extra bonus: attack power, HP, or magic power.
The game also adds reflexes to the RPG formula: you power up attacks by pressing a button at the right moment. In general, you press the attack button (A) or ability button (Y) right before the attack animation hits the enemy. The window for this button press is generous. This system is ideal for younger players. When I was very young, I was convinced that in Dragon Warrior you could get critical hits with perfect timing! With some abilities, you have to press Y repeatedly as fast as you can, as with Mario's fireballs. He shoots them just like in the Super Mario games when he has the Fire Flower power-up. Others require you to rotate the d-pad for maximum effect, such as Mallow's Snow attack or Bowser's Terror. Several of Geno's abilities require you to hold Y, then release it at the right moment. Let go too soon or too late and it won't be as powerful. The hardest timing by far are Mario's Super Jump and Ultra Jump. These work the same as bouncing off an enemy in a Super Mario game. When Mario lands, you press Y and he bounces back up and lands again. You can chain up to 100 jumps this way! However, the timing becomes almost frame precise. I never got more than about eighteen, not even close to the 30 required to earn the powerful Attack Scarf (+30 to all attributes).
Super Mario RPG has some things in common with Final Fantasy VII (the development of the two games partially overlapped). For example, you can only have three party members at a time. You can change them whenever you want by selecting "Switch" from the menu. Each character can equip just one accessory and one piece of armor, same as in FF7. The selection of weapon and armor is very limited and simplistic. Each time you come to a new town, there will be a more powerful weapon and armor to buy for some or all of your characters. You buy them, equip them, then sell the old ones. There are no additional options or opportunities to customize. Very few weapons and equipment are found in item boxes (treasure chests). There are a few bonus items not sold in stores, such as the aforementioned Attack Scarf.
The game uses an unusual battle interface. Instead of using the d-pad, each of the commands is mapped to one of the four main buttons: Y is for special abilities, X items, A attack, and B defend or run. To confirm your selection, you press that button again. If you press a different button, you switch to that command instead. I'm not sure this makes the game any easier for kids.
There are numerous Super Mario elements, notably jumping. Jumping is so important that NPCs often discuss how Mario is famous for his superhuman jumping. Sometimes they demand he jump to prove it's really him! The manual even says that, if you ever find Mario won't move while talking, just press B to jump! There are moving platforms, and in a couple instances your reflexes will be tested when Mario is hiding. On rare occasions you find a Super Star, which lets you defeat enemies and gain XP without fighting!
Mario RPG uses an isometric perspective, which makes it stand out from both Mario games and Final Fantasy games. It was 1996, so 3D made sense at the time. Unfortunately, that means it's not as charming-looking as it would have been if they had stuck with Final Fantasy-style sprites. Precise jumps are harder than in a normal Mario game due to the isometric perspective.
Super Mario RPG has a lot of mini puzzles or tasks you have to accomplish that don't involve fighting. Anyone who has played FF6 or FF7 will recognize these (think, for example, of the dinner party or rafting in FF6). These events keep the game from becoming monotonous, which could happen because the combat is so simple. There are also 39 invisible item boxes hidden throughout the game. It pays to jump around like a madman looking for them! Thankfully there is an accessory near the end of the game that makes a chime sound whenever a hidden item box is nearby.
One of this game's biggest appeals is its silly plot, characters, and dialogue. Everything is light-hearted and full of jokes. The translation is well done, and people speak colloquially and in a way suitable to younger audiences. You need to appreciate the goofiness to enjoy the game.
The enemies are a combination of Mario enemies and random stuff invented by Square, like anthropomorphic plants, fruits, animals, and stars. They often use special attacks with animations like those seen in Final Fantasy games, such as Willy Wisp, Drain, and Diamond Saw. One cool feature, again for younger players, is that you often get random bonuses during battle, such as a character having their HP refilled or an item use giving you a "freebie."
Despite this, combat was the part of the game I enjoyed the least. I got tired of the timing element after a while. There is no way to speed up battles (I've been spoiled by the FF Remaster series). Enemy attack and ability animations take too long. With exceptions, battles are easy. I admit the same could be said of most FF games. Fortunately, there are no random encounters, so you can avoid most enemies if you want. If you do this, you'll have lower levels so the game will get harder. If I play this a second time, I will do that.
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars is a great entry-level RPG for younger players and fans of Super Mario. I've been playing RPGs for over 30 years, and I still had tons of fun because of the humor and platforming and puzzle elements. It helps that the game is short, taking about twenty hours, so it does not overstay its welcome. Also, the end credits sequence is delightful, utilizing tiny little sprites. It's worth beating Smithy just to see it.
"Who would have thought that putting Mario into a traditional RPG setting would end up working so well."
— Corbie Dillard, Nintendo Life, 10/10
"The plethora of kooky characters, treasure boxes, items, minigames, and side quests is incredible."
— Asheton Phinney, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the SNES Library, 4.5/5
"Thanks to its clever RPG gameplay that featured action commands and even some platforming, Super Mario RPG is one of those SNES titles that is often touted as one of Nintendo's all-time greatest games."
— IGN, #10 of Top 100