As the old adage goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Such is the case for Super Mario RPG, the latest volley in what has been a banner year for the aging Nintendo Switch. WIth this remake, Nintendo takes a beloved but also oft-forgotten nineties classic and largely preserves it with all of the charm, character, and imagination that made it great in the first place.
The original Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars is a real classic of its time, a delicious cross-over of Nintendo’s most beloved intellectual property with the role-playing development chops of Square, right around the time that company was pumping out the likes of Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger. It’s some real Avengers team-up type stuff - the mightiest meet to create something unstoppable. Such is the nature of this project.
For the most part, this new version of Super Mario RPG feels very faithful. But it’s not faithful to a fault - and that, in fact, is paradoxically its greatest fault. What is presented is actually closer to and more respectful of the original than I’d have imagined modern Nintendo would manage with a Mario game, but at the same time, that propensity to nip and tuck – and especially to make things easier - imposes itself on the experience.
The narrative is blissfully unchanged. Some 90s slang has been stripped away, but this is the same old story with the same old characters, which includes appearances from fan-favorite characters whose popularity has endured despite seldom appearing since. Nintendo’s vision and presentation of the Mushroom Kingdom has changed a fair amount since 1996, but the temptation to sanitize Square’s unique vision of this world has been resisted here. It is as you’ll remember.
That’s sort of the point of the best type of remake, isn’t it? It looks how you remember. The original Mario RPG used sprites captured from rudimentary 3D models in a similar fashion to Donkey Kong Country; here, they’re actual fully-fledged 3D models running around a 3D world, but they retain that sort of pudgy, clay model like look that gave the game so much of its charm. Even in animation frames - here and there, the lower number of frames created an iconic look to certain moments and scenes. These things have been carefully preserved even in the modern context. The only exceptions are a few key moments, which have been given a lush presentation as pre-rendered 3D cutscenes.
Many of you won’t be old enough to remember 1996 - or perhaps you’re based in Europe, where the original was never released, and never discovered alternative ways to play it. The long story short is rather simple, though: this is a traditional Japanese-style RPG set in the Mario world - but thanks to the Mario connection, it has an action twist.
Traveling through the world has you jumping and platforming, for instance, but in a much more restricted manner and from an isometric perspective. Come into contact with a Goomba or the like and things really differentiate, however - as you’re thrown into turn-based battles that closely resemble Square’s Final Fantasy games of the time. Even the turn-based combat strives to offer a veneer of Mario-style interactivity in the form of the ability to time button presses along with the attack animations to dish out more damage.
All of these systems will be familiar to the elderly among you, and likely take on the fuzzy properties of a fabulously soft comfort blanket. Those of you that don’t have back pain can also be rest-assured that this is a solid RPG experience. It’s a bit ‘baby’s first RPG’, but that’s also sort of the point. The idea, even in the 90s, was that a Mario fan might play this and then graduate to something like Final Fantasy for Dragon Quest. Square is no longer involved, but this idea has remained intact through other Mario RPG titles in the time since - and in 2023, a newly RPG-smitten Nintendo has a bunch of other RPGs to point converts to, like Fire Emblem, Xenoblade, and even Pokemon.
Mario RPG was always a bit ‘baby’s first RPG’, like I said - but it’s even more so now, in this iteration on Nintendo Switch. Some changes have clearly primarily been made for the sake of convenience - though many of these changes also have the side effect of trivializing an already very easy RPG. All this is on top of actually adding an easier difficulty mode right at the top anyway. I can’t be clear enough in saying some of this is welcome, like having a strong auto save so the game doesn’t bump you back two hours just because you weren’t fastidious enough with saving progress. But the prompts that make things like the button press timings easier, or the ability to guard attacks with similarly well-placed timing, do feel like they make things a little too easy.
New ultimate attacks have the same sort of iffy balance. They’re cool-looking, and I love them for that, channeling Final Fantasy’s Limit Breaks. By the same token, though, this is already an easy game, so throwing heavy-hitting new attacks into the mix only makes it more so.
The problem, I suppose, is that the game is faithful - until it isn’t. The balance feels relatively faithful to the original, for instance - almost like it barely considers the new mechanics piled on top. This is great for kids, and it will make a brilliant first RPG for many - but as a fan of the original, I was vaguely frustrated.
Nintendo has been careful to throw a bone to the more experienced players, however. There’s a bunch of post-game fights, some of which require you to rethink your approach to Mario RPG’s battles and actually think about battle plans, party composition, equipment, and even dabble in all-new systems like the ability to switch party members mid-combat. I’m pleased this meat is here, but also I honestly think there’s no shame in these games being a little bit challenging - especially with a generous auto-save system. Even Pokemon has more bite than this.
What saves Mario RPG is ultimately how lovely and unique it is. It’s bursting with a wonderful energy that’s perhaps best exemplified by Yoko Shimomura’s delightfully fanciful score. The veteran composer - who by this point don’t forget had already composed for Street Fighter 2 and thereby was already gaming music royalty - has said she considers Mario RPG a turning point in her career. You can see the connective tissue from her work here to Kingdom Hearts - and similar is true across Mario RPG. It’s a game that laid countless foundations. Without it, would we have Paper Mario? The Mario & Luigi RPG titles? Would we even have the Mushroom Kingdom fleshed out as it is today? I’m honestly not so sure.
So, it’s a little on the easy side. But in the 90s, Mario RPG created a new generation of role-playing fans with a mix of whimsy, magic, and familiar characters that back then was incredibly uncommon. This remake retains all of that - all of the stuff that matters. At some point, I have to accept that us old’uns who remember it probably aren’t the primary audience for this remake - and that’s okay, too. It’s an easy recommendation, regardless.