As we celebrate Mario Day (and the franchise's 35th anniversary), don't forget that Super Mario RPG still stands among the genre's greats.
Everyone has their favorite Mario game and remembers their first experience fondly--stomping goombas and koopa troopas, collecting stars, and making tight jumps in whichever whimsical world sticks with you, especially at a young age. With games like Super Mario World and Super Mario 64 often cited as the quintessential series entries, and seeing that evolution with the likes of Galaxy and Odyssey, it's easy to see why these action-platformers are highly regarded and often cited as formative gaming experiences..
I've enjoyed those games and understand the fervor of people's love for them, but they're not necessarily what made Mario important in my eyes. The lens through which I've always understood the franchise has been Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, the 1996 SNES game from Squaresoft (now Square Enix). It's a game that took the things we loved about Mario and subverted expectations. It made Mario, Bowser, and Peach allies, and it gave the series' characters a vibrant world to live in.
Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VI, and Chrono Trigger were already among the SNES greats, but Square had one last game in it before jumping ship to the PlayStation. And the developer's RPG mastery transformed that beloved Mario universe into something much more than a platforming adventure. Square gave Mario the Final Fantasy treatment with unique story arcs, the development of existing characters, new faces that quickly became favorites, an ingenious combat system, and an unforgettable soundtrack. On its own merits, Mario RPG stands among the genre's greats.
I didn't have a strong attachment to the Mario franchise at the time. But I did have those SNES RPGs that tested my reading comprehension and problem solving skills at a young age. Whereas Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger were relatively dark and brooding (which is why I cherish them), Mario RPG was a breath of fresh air--whimsical, light-hearted, and a pleasant world to be in.
Towns and villages were full of goofy characters that made the world feel alive, and let you peer into the goings-on of the Mushroom Kingdom and beyond. While traveling through the mines, forests, sunken ships, and sky-bound towns, you'd help the folks of these places take back what's theirs, instead of just skittering through them and hopping on heads. In doing so, you'd earn the respect and support of the Mushroom Kingdom's denizens as you try to return things back to normal.
Mario RPG never takes itself too seriously, and it shows in its characterizations. Mario's role as a silent protagonist works, especially when he has to communicate with others in the story with all the instances of silly charades he has to play. Bowser gave off a low-key tsundere energy while Peach delivered a sass and fighting spirit that she never got to show off before. They also came together with newcomers like Mallow; although he might be a big crybaby, his journey to develop his own strength and place in the world was heart-warming. And don't get us Geno stans started. The toy-come-to-life is of few words and gives off a badass vibe with his stern attitude and powerful moveset.
The whole reason Bowser begrudgingly joins forces with Mario and Peach is to take back his castle from Smithy, this gigantic sword that overtook his keep and spread his minions across the land. It's a mutual enemy that flips the whole damsel-in-distress trope that Mario RPG pokes fun at. Even the other villains you want to take down with ferocity are actually just really strong goofballs. Take Booster and the whole level of Booster's Tower, for example. His clownish ass taunts and laughs at you as you chase him up his tower, but along the way is a masterclass in physical comedy--puzzles like matching the portraits of Booster's ancestors, avoiding bombs he throws from his little train cart, and dodging his goons from exposing you hiding behind curtains. So many memorable moments of absurdist humor can be found throughout Mario RPG and it's a tone that other RPGs (and Mario games) just didn't have room to do.
The game also hits many of the core JRPG tenets with aplomb and a particular kind of execution, which comes through in the turn-based battles. Everyone has their own special weapons that all function differently: Mario's hammers or koopa shells, Bowser claws or chain chomps, and Peach's slapping gloves or parasols, and so on. Everyone had their unique spells that also required your attention and input. Battles kept you engaged because attacks, spells, and defending yourself aren't complete without the perfect timing of button presses. It was an active element for a turn-based system that pulled from a key element of the core Mario games, and that was carried into the Paper Mario series.
Mario RPG was filled with secrets, references, and memorable battles, too. The best of all being the optional (and extremely tough) boss fight against Culex. It felt like I had earned something worthwhile just to unlock the fight itself and hear the Final Fantasy IV boss theme play in a Mario game. Even after so many attempts, it was a genuine accomplishment for me to finally defeat him, and a genuine surprise to hear the Victory Fanfare tune afterward. It was a profound moment, capped by Culex's words, "Perhaps in another time, another game, we may have been mortal enemies... Let us part as comrades in arms," as the iconic Crystal Prelude played in the background.
Just like various Final Fantasy games, however, the thing that has kept my memories of Mario RPG alive and fresh over the past 25 years is the soundtrack. I don't think I've ever written about an RPG without exploring how its music contributes to the experience and how I'll remember the game itself. Mario RPG is full of joyous melodies that instill a sense of adventure and pleasantness, but also has some low-key sinister tunes that express danger and intimidation at the right moments. I think that what most people know about Mario RPG's soundtrack is that infectious melody from "Beware The Forest's Mushrooms." It's the perfect example of how standout melodies are supported by rhythms and harmonies in the background to make a song sound full with the various 16-bit-era instrumentals playing off each other to create a complexity only the best composers can do.
That's a credit to Yoko Shimomura, who has a deep history of recognizable work that puts her in the conversation with some of the best game composers--Kingdom Hearts to Final Fantasy XV, Mario and Luigi subseries, and dozens of other games. But what she did for Mario RPG is what cements her legacy as one of the all-time greats.
Among the many iconic melodies from Mario that have pervaded pop culture, Mario RPG has the depth and range that stands with some of the best in games. As our favorite games of yesteryear start to age and become more and more a product of its time that evokes nostalgia, the music that captured our experiences with these games are timeless.
Mario RPG ticks off all the boxes of what makes an RPG great, especially from its era: great music, banding together to fight a common enemy, fun turn-based battles, a great sense of finality, and even some heartfelt goodbyes. Only in recent years have I let myself be more vulnerable when it comes to video game storytelling, and I've expressed as much in covering Persona, Yakuza, and Final Fantasy XIV. But I actually think my first teary-eyed moment came at the end of Mario RPG when it was time for Geno to return to action-figure form. He was such a badass dude, and my favorite party member to use. His animations, skillset, demeanor, and design were just so damn cool to me. Six-year-old me wanted to be cool like him, too!
JRPGs do this all the time and I should know better by now, but if there's anything that'll turn me into a puddle of tears, it's a proper hero's goodbye. If memory serves me right, Geno left with a grace and modesty that only fit his character.
Not often does a Mario game build a genuine narrative connection to individual characters. As a fairly sensitive kid, seeing Mallow be accepted with his insecurities and overcome the perception of being a "wimp" meant something to me. And even though Mario doesn't say a word, his physical expressiveness and willingness to fight showed a side of him you don't always see. That Mario who fought alongside Bowser, Peach, Geno, and Mallow and took the time to help each town and its people stave off evil, that's the Mario I know and love.
How often do we get to look at a Mario game in this way? Not often at all. Mario RPG contains an experience you truly can't get from any other game in the franchise. It's one of the most imaginative takes on the Mario universe, and it's that Squaresoft touch that captured the magic of RPGs while fitting it perfectly into the context of a Mario game to make it their own. Across the board, Mario RPG wasn't just an impressive adaptation of the essentials of a Mario game, it's also recognized as one of the best RPGs of the era, transcending Mario tropes in ways that still stand out to this day.