Super Mario RPG review: an endearing, perplexing relic

While it might be a stretch to call Nintendo a friend to game preservationists, there’s no denying that the company is in a class of its own when it comes to respecting its own history and curating its back catalog. Nintendo has been remaking and reissuing its classic titles for at least 30 years, all the way from 1993’s Super Mario All-Stars (which gave the 8-bit Mario games a 16-bit makeover) up to this year’s Metroid Prime Remastered and Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp. Through initiatives like the Virtual Console and Nintendo Switch Online, Nintendo keeps a raft of retro games available in their original versions. It also lavishes select titles with remakes that go quite far in their reworked control schemes or reinterpreted art styles, but invariably stay true to the original’s spirit.

The further we get into Nintendo’s decades-long project of reexamining, repackaging, and reselling its past, the more interesting and surprising some of the choices get — few more so than Super Mario RPG, a new Switch remake of the 1996 Super Nintendo game, originally subtitled Legend of the Seven Stars. Despite its position as the first role-playing, narrative-forward adventure for Nintendo’s mascot character — and the progenitor of not one but two much-loved series, Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi — Super Mario RPG has been unavailable for long periods, especially outside Japan and North America. Nintendo has seemed to keep this curious episode in Mario history at arm’s length.

Why? Mario RPG was a then-unprecedented co-production with another Japanese super-studio, Square (now Square Enix). This brings with it some rights issues — Square Enix owns original characters created for the game, for example — that needed to be negotiated. But also, it becomes abundantly clear as soon as you start playing it that Super Mario RPG is barely a Nintendo game at all.

A character in a viking hat and three henchmen discover Mario behind a curtain in a room containing several toys of Mario characters in Super Mario RPG

Image: ArtePiazza/Nintendo

Square was a role-playing giant at the time — Mario RPG was released between the sixth and seventh Final Fantasy games, probably the all-time high point for that series — and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, looking to expand into RPGs, came to Square as a supplicant, seeking the studio’s expertise. This was no simple work-for-hire job, and the resulting game has Square’s personality stamped all over it, from the characters and the structure to the storytelling style and the gameplay. The cognitive dissonance I experienced playing a Mario game made by Square is similar to that I had watching A.I., a Stanley Kubrick film completed after his death by Steven Spielberg. These are pairings of great artists, but the flavors don’t quite go.

That’s not to say Square made no concessions to Mario’s world for Super Mario RPG. This is a thoughtful, approachable, and irrepressibly jolly reframing of Square’s stock-in-trade for a first-time audience and for a character that has always expressed himself through action. The turn-based battle system is the soul of elegant simplicity, given immediacy by Action Commands that enhance your performance with well-timed button presses. All enemies are visible on the map and there are no random battles, meaning there’s almost always an option for Mario to dodge conflict or sail clean over the head of violence, just as in his platform games. Mario’s trademark jump enables a degree of verticality, exploration, and even light platforming across the isometric environments that most RPGs of the era didn’t have. Super Mario RPG plays very briskly for a turn-based game of its age, and, at under 20 hours to complete, it’s a manageable length. It makes for a perfect “My First RPG.”

Mario, Geno, and Bowser encounter a character called Punchinello in a mine, who says, ‘Urk! You’re that famous Bowser? The Chain-Chomp-slinging one?’

Image: ArtePiazza/Nintendo

Or it did in 1996, anyway. As great as they are, one quality that mid-’90s Square games do not share with Nintendo’s work of the same era is timelessness. One aspect of Nintendo’s mastery is that it has tended to operate in unique genre spaces that Nintendo’s designers carved out for themselves, which were not — and have never been — subject to fashion (spaces those designers then filled with ideas that were rigorously edited and executed with total finesse). That’s how Nintendo can remake a 1993 Game Boy game like The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, say, without substantially changing its design or content, and it can feel miraculously fresh, exhibiting almost none of the limitations of its time or its original technology.

That’s just not true of Super Mario RPG. Not that this excellent new version is at fault. Its developer, ArtePiazza — a longtime support studio and CG specialist on the Dragon Quest series, working here under the supervision of both Nintendo and Square Enix — has toed the line of faithful modernization with perfect poise. The all-new visuals are gorgeously polished, yet somehow retain the slightly distorted shapes, oversaturated colors, and clashing textures of the original game’s pre-rendered sprites and backgrounds. Yoko Shimomura has overseen a sumptuous rerecording of her wonderful score, which can be toggled with the chiptune originals. There are frequent autosaves, a new easy difficulty, a handy monster list that collates data on enemy weaknesses, many quality-of-life and user interface improvements, and even a sort of endgame that offers tougher rematches with all the game’s bosses after the story is done.

There have also been substantial improvements to the battle system, mostly around the rhythmic Action Commands. These have visual cues to make them easier to time; perfect timing results in additional splash damage. They also offer stat boosts when chained, and fill up a Triple Move Gauge that unleashes a powerful, summon-like Triple Move skill, complete with cinematic animation, which varies depending on your party composition. This is all very smart stuff that offers tempting optimizations and makes Mario RPG’s combat more engaging without messing with its underlying simplicity. Triple Moves are showy but also serve a higher purpose, encouraging players to switch up their team composition to suit the fight at hand, rather than rely on a favorite trio.

Mario, Mallow, and Geno line up for battle against two enemies in Super Mario RPG. Text shows that they have a chain going that is boosting various stats

Image: ArtePiazza/Nintendo

But there’s only so much modernization you can (or should) do to Super Mario RPG. It’s a quaint, weird, uneven game, a wobbly first attempt to deploy deeper storytelling within the Mushroom Kingdom without the guardrails offered by Paper Mario’s stylized storybook framing or Mario & Luigi’s amusingly ironic distance. Square Enix’s original characters — principally Mallow, a juvenile cloud-man who thinks he’s a frog; Geno, a wooden puppet possessed by a heroic spirit of the Star Road; and antagonists the Smithy gang, many of whom are talking weapons — are memorable, but don’t feel like they belong in the same world as Nintendo’s creations. Bowser fares well on the side of good, for once, as an irascible member of Mario’s party (with a tender side, when it comes to caring for Chain Chomps), while Princess Peach recovers from spending the first half of the game in damsel-in-distress mode to join the party as a powerful healer with a mean frying-pan backhand.

At its worst, Super Mario RPG can feel rushed and incomplete, a series of non sequiturs. At its best, it has a juvenile, madcap energy that’s almost anarchic. There’s an unforgettable sequence where a tiny, gurning Viking called Booster, who rides model trains around his palace and commands an army of sinister gas-mask-wearing minions, tries to marry Peach without really understanding what a wedding is. This culminates in a boss battle with a giant, possibly sentient cake and its two Koopa chefs (one of whom has a German accent, for some reason).

Between moments like this you get long stretches of grinding interpolated with creaky minigames, silly interactive jokes, and mazelike exploration. While Mario RPG’s breezy pace and frequent scene changes ensure it seldom drags, none of it could be mistaken for a modern video game, and it feels as though this remake is more likely to find an audience among aging nostalgists than a new generation of first-time role-players. But really, that’s to ArtePiazza, Nintendo, and Square Enix’s credit. Because this is Super Mario RPG with its barmy, clumsy, endearingly unfiltered soul intact — preserved, hopefully, for the next 27 years.

Super Mario RPG will be released Nov. 17 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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