Super Mario RPG Review

It could be argued that some of the scenes from Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars are just as memorable as any of the other 16-bit legends that found themselves on the Super Nintendo. I have such vivid memories from the 1996 masterpiece - the sword dropping down into Bower’s Castle, Geno’s origin, or hiding behind curtains in Booster’s Tower.When Nintendo surprised us all with the reveal of a full-blown remake for the Switch, I immediately ran out to restock on my ‘90s snack favorites in preparation. After experiencing the story again and fighting through the new post-game content, I came away a bit conflicted - I think that this remake may be one of the best beginner-friendly RPGs out there, but as a fan of the original, I think I may just stick with the 16-bit classic.

The story in Super Mario RPG remains unchanged, with no discernible adjustments that I could see during my 11-hour playthrough. After a brief exchange between Mario and Bowser in his castle to rescue Princess Peach, things take a turn when a giant sword falls from the sky, piercing the castle and sending Mario, Peach, and Bowser far from one another. From then on, it is up to Mario and friends - Mallow the fluffy tadpole, Geno the puppet with gun arms, Princess Peach, and even Bowser himself - to work together to discover who the Smithy Gang is, recover the fragments of the Star Road, and put things right.

The story remains just as whimsical and full of charm that made so many people fall in love with the original all those years ago, and much of it is presented in the same way - pantomiming Mario and all. Some specific moments throughout the story have, however received the fully rendered cutscene treatment, and these largely are fun to watch, with my only criticism being the choice to use large white text overlays rather than voice acting during them. As good as the cutscenes look, it feels awkward with well-animated but silent characters and overlaid text. I’m not sure that I prefer this new method over how they were originally presented.

Paired with the updated 3D visuals, Super Mario RPG has brand new arrangements for the entire soundtrack. These redone tracks recapture and elevate the classic tunes with new audio channels, allowing for more instrumentals to join in and bring new life to the older tracks. Purists will be glad to know that the 16-bit renditions are a simple toggle away in the menu. If the new tunes don’t do it for you, the old tunes still sound just as good as they did on the Super Nintendo.

Even if the story has remained the same, that doesn't mean that Super Mario RPG doesn’t offer anything new for players. The nearly three decades since the launch of the original has left a lot of room for the addition of modern convenience features. An easier difficulty is available to choose from and early on in Mushroom Kingdom Town you can get an item that tips you off to nearby hidden chests. Players can also now breathe a bit easier, thanks to the implementation of an auto-save feature that triggers in what seemed like almost every new room. You can also expect to be provided a lot more information while in combat, with pop-ups appearing to clearly show when you have hit an enemy’s weakness and timing prompts to help you land timed hits. 

Besides the increase in information presented to the player, combat also sees a number of new elements, with a few, in particular, rubbing me the wrong way. There are now two levels of timed hits: The first level behaves exactly as it did in the original game, allowing you to deal more damage. The new second level, requiring a more precise timing, will now let your basic attacks hit the entire enemy squad, adding a 'splash damage' effect to normal attacks.

You can also time your guarding as well, reducing or completely negating damage altogether. Consecutive successful timed hits will build a new combo counter that can activate each character’s inherent special buff, improving the party. You will gain progressively better versions of these buffs once you hit 2,3,5 and 10 timed activities in a row. Hitting either of these timing triggers will fill a portion of another new mechanic, the Action Gauge, with every ten successes in a row granting an Action Gauge bonus, filling it even more.

The best way to think of this new gauge is as Super Mario RPG’s answer to a Limit Break mechanic. Filling the Action Gauge via timed hits or timed guards will activate a powerful Triple Move that is unique to each trio of characters in the game. Pairing Mario, Peach, and Mallow together will cause a full team-wide heal that will revive downed characters. Mario, Bowser, and Mallow’s Triple Move will cause the three of them to rain down elemental havoc on the enemies from Bower’s flying Koopa Clown Car. All of these are presented to you as gorgeous pre-rendered mini-cutscenes reminiscent of a Final Fantasy Summon attack.

The Action Gauge and the Triple Moves it unlocks are very powerful, so much so that they can instantly turn the tide and make many fights trivial. If you are down a character (except for Mario) you can still use your Action Gauge to instead summon Toad to grant you a special buff or use a powerful attack that hits all enemies on screen. 

For players who wish to seek out additional challenges, Super Mario RPG now features special post-game fights. A majority of them impressed me, forcing you to drop the strategies and formations you devised over the course of the main game and instead figure out the trick to the fight. Even your impervious (and still very much overpowered) Lazy Shell armor can’t save you in these fights. Although I can’t specify details, there were a couple of post-game battles that were less imaginative, reusing a similar shtick as another one or simply making it a one-on-one fight. I was particularly let down by the final of the post-game fights, the self-proclaimed “Ultimate challenge”, which didn’t even include a clever gimmick to the fight, instead opting for just “boss hits really hard” tactic. 

Perhaps the newest addition that I am the least fond of is the new option to tag out party members mid-combat (very similar to Final Fantasy X), and the game will also automatically force your reserves in when your main party all get knocked out. You don’t lose a turn when you swap out a character, meaning you can start with your fastest character in, and right away swap to your slowest and strongest character with no penalty. This danger is further reduced by the fact that battles are only lost now when all of your available party members are defeated. You are no longer just a party of three but a party of five (shout out to the ‘90s), and it’s this forced swapping function that particularly rubbed me the wrong way.

With all of these fancy new mechanics added to Super Mario RPG, we get to my main issue with the remake - the game doesn’t feel as though it has been balanced with new additions in mind, making this remake an even easier experience overall, one that felt less rewarding as a result. To be clear, and I really want to stress this, I’m not annoyed that these new mechanics exist, what annoyed me was that I wasn’t able to choose whether or not to use some of the most impactful culprits that cause this balance shift. 

With the Action Gauge, while always present, I could choose whether or not to use the powerful Triple Moves or Toad Assist. I could choose to use the Signal Ring that told me if a hidden chest was nearby. Had the party swap mechanic stopped at just letting you swap out alive characters and not forced your hand, I could have chosen whether or not to use that mechanic too, and I wouldn’t have been bothered by it. 

Several new mechanics cannot be toggled to their original implementation, like the AOE basic attacks, the forced swap when your party wipes, and, to a lesser extent, the markers telling you when you time your perfect presses for attacks/spells/defense. Fights are no longer against your hand-picked party of three but your whole roster of five. Boss encounters that relied on outnumbering you aren’t as scary when, for no resource cost, you can attack all the enemies on screen with all your characters all the time. This all makes for a wonderful “Kid’s first RPG” experience, but not the “reliving the old days” experience longtime fans may be looking for. Just let me turn off these options or add a “Hard” difficulty that accounts for these mechanics, and I’d be a happy tadpole.

For the issues I do have with Super Mario RPG, and perhaps this is because I’m a new father who anxiously awaits the day that my son starts playing games, but I also think that this may be the best “My First RPG” option out there. All of those new systems that rubbed me the wrong way will be wonderful for younger players just getting into games. There is even an easier difficulty you can choose from to make it even more playable for those audiences. I still love and adore the original 16-bit release of this game, and I will always have it to choose from, but I’m so excited to share this new remake with my son in a few years and introduce him to the RPG genre.

The fanciful and memorable cast of characters, locations, and story are what made the original release so timeless and beloved by fans the world over, and Super Mario RPG recaptures that magic for a new generation. While some changes made to the game may not land for longtime fans of the game, myself included, we will always have the original. This Super Mario RPG remake easily stands on its own as a wonderful retelling of a classic that I can see serving as a gateway into the genre for younger players for years to come.