Super Mario RPG (SNES), first impressions

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars is a game I ironically was introduced to on Final Fantasy Wiki, though I in part am the reason (as an admin who was far more active back then) why it’s no longer on there. It’s been a point of mild curiosity, but since the remake is coming out and I am disinclined to pay Nintendo for a Switch and the game as my general boycott of their making themselves the enemy of video game preservation (offering the same paltry fraction as ever from their vast library), I figured there was no better time to purchase a SNES and a copy of the original game, being the sort who has CRT TVs to easily enjoy them both on. As such, whatever enhancements the new version might offer will not be included here. This is a 100% retro review for you to choose whether you’re inclined to do the same as me or maybe buy into the newer offering.

And because this is totally 100% real media on 100% real hardware, Nintendo can’t even send the Mario Bros. with monkey wrenches for my kneecaps!

Right at the start

First impressions are good. As someone who has only ever played SNES games at others’ houses up to this point, I have to say that at least on the small TV we got from Aldi years back, the graphics are bright and crisp, which may sound odd when talking about a CRT, but the thing about a CRT is that there were ways of doing things that could accomplish that. CRT is not inherently worse than modern displays; it just requires different artistry to reach the same realism, and in many ways it enabled the limited tech of the day to punch far above its weight. Right off the bat, this game looks like any toony game could dream of.

The music is also bright and pleasant and has the characteristic jazziness of the series, with staple themes woven into the intro. Even if you’re not a fan of the series (I never had much opportunity to become one), there’s enough of what’s iconic for you to at least feel comfortable sitting down to it, like visiting a foreign country and being served a dish with bits of your favorite comfort food mixed in.

It is, in short, an excellent first impression that shows off the technology, including a bit of Mode 7 from the game clips and some really sneaky Mode 7 to make Bowser scoop up Princess Toadstool (this is apparently the last game before they standardized on "Peach") in his clown copter right as the scene goes dramatically black in a very clever, seamless, tightly timed way.

Getting into the game, it starts off pretty strong with some very easy battles and only minimal help from NPCs, which is to say the biggest difficulty I had right away was mostly down to experimentation and running myself out of MP, which is "Flowers" in this game and is shared by the whole party. Everything else I was more or less able to stumble into, which is a trademark of the franchise that it’s nice to see Square took to heart. Unlike most games, this one basically starts with an epic showdown between you and Bowser and you win that boss battle by attacking the Kinklink (Chomp family) holding up the chandelier he’s standing on because Bowser himself has effectively infinite HP (can’t fall to 0 HP if it’s already 0; thanks, Mario Wiki!). However, Bowser somehow produces hammers to throw at Mario’s Kinklink on the way down and causes Mario to start falling, though Mario jumps off Bowser (in a falling scene that somehow ignores the floor not far below) to rescue Toadstool. This is all for naught, as a giant sword falls from the sky to pierce the castle and sends everyone flying in different directions, with Mario serendipitously having his fall broken by landing straight in the pipe decorating the top of his own house, which, as we all know, transports you at a fixed speed like letting an iron rod slide through a magnetic coil (look up a video if you haven’t seen one). However, this leaves him hanging on his own hat hook, which you must jump to leave, and so begins the game in earnest, with a Toad there to remind you normal people use doors to enter their houses, and a sprite dedicated to a puzzle you’ll probably never see again that requires you to find what button gets you down and thus introduces you to jumping if you hadn’t figured it out already. In fact, the game very quickly introduces jumping as just a thing you do. It’s very easy to find by accident (easier than running, in fact) and the game incorporates it as a core mechanic.

I ultimately approached it more or less like any other RPG and was rewarded for that by stumbling into resting at Mario’s house, but the cool thing is all the other stuff that I found that I’m sure tutorializes stuff later, including the fact that if you jump on the bed, it acts like a trampoline. But from there, you’re left with no recourse but to return to the Keep to let the giant sword talk at you about the gang he’s part of taking over and destroy the bridge, forcing you back home for further instruction.

The game doesn’t tell you everything right away, but it does let you operate right away, even if it’s not optimally. In that regard, the only real complaints I have off the bat are that 1) the combat controls are clunky and 2) it decides to "go here and do this" you and start aggressively tutorializing after your epic initial battle, which brings the game to a screeching halt and made me quit out because it gave me a Mushroom, which heals 30 HP, and forced me to use it to heal 1 HP because I said I didn’t know how, even though I probably could have figured it out and had already tripped over the rest system in Mario’s house.

But quit out I did, because if I can walk away with a free healing item, I’m going to. Though it maybe would have behooved me to make sure it wouldn’t afford me just as many or more to cover my inexperience, because Toad gave me more at the end of that tutorial.

From there, it was a matter of grinding the cannon fodder a bit to get through the first real dungeon, which you then never technically need to visit again, to get to the first real town, which is useful only for story and shop reasons, having the gall to have an inn that charges you to stay when you can directly travel home to rest for free. It does, however, do something clever by further tutorializing jumping by making it the response to an NPC who plays a prank by indicating Mario is standing in something unsavory, which comes back later for the observant player. More on that in a bit.

Getting into a groove

I ended up grinding myself to level 5 in the first dungeon and while the levels do come quickly up to that point, each one does matter, as your Defense starts at 0 and becomes a constant reduction down to a minimum of 1, which means that the first time you level up, the introductory enemies suddenly become much less of a threat. You also get to choose to pump bonus points into your stats, but each level has one stat that rises higher than normal and you’re best off just checking them all to see what that is, because while HP is always going to offer at least 3 points, it’s really in your best interests to only take that if both your physical and magical options offer paltry numbers for their respective attack and defense bonuses. If there’s ever a question on what bonus to take and it’s a toss-up between HP and something else, take the something else. It’s going to increase your defenses anyway by reducing damage a fixed amount and that can go a long way toward keeping the HP pool you have from being drained too quickly while also ensuring you can damage the enemies coming up.

To explain the controls a bit, they’re typical for Japanese controls, which is to say that A is where O would be on a PlayStation controller and that’s going to be your Confirm button, usually, and B is going to be your Cancel, but also your Jump in the field. Dashing is on Y, which is where would be, and this is going to cause me immediate problems, because it is equally awkward for my stubby Hitchhiker’s Thumb to hit with any regularity. The edge of the concave button also just feels weird. X is thankfully the menu button, leaving Start, Select, L and R apparently unused except using them all together to reset the game if you’re too lazy to reach for the console button. I have found this quite a bit more useful than I’d initially anticipated when I learned about it.

Battle’s controls are kind of a pain because even before getting my hands on my own SNES, I never liked the US version changing from the brighter colors to two different purples, but here it means that unlike the JP version, the individual commands lack their own identity and it’s listed by the button and only opens up after you hit one to tell you what it’s for, which means remembering it without any nice color cues is going to be at least twice as hard, not that that’s particularly hard to begin with, but not to the game’s benefit. The ­real problem comes in where whatever button you pushed is your Confirm button through the whole process, which is just alien to me. It’s all that much harder because, I mean, I can switch my brain over to a Japanese confirmation setup in time. I’ve done that with other games, and Nintendo’s handhelds, and while it’s an acclimation period, I do adjust. But having to manage multiple confirmation schemes is just clunky and will make it that much harder to adjust in menus. Not far into my run, it led me to freeze in panic as I somehow almost ended up using an item on Mario and had to take several seconds to assure myself that pressing B was going to cancel it, because somehow pressing Y is what got me there and that’s not even what it does in battle. That and B and Y effectively do the opposite thing for Mario in and out of battle, with all his jumping attacks being on Y and defending and running being on B when it would have behooved the game to keep them more consistent since it’s likely you’ll be doing at least as much running as jumping on maps and this makes it obnoxiously hard to run for an RPG that’s already harder to move in than it should be as an isometric game. So right out the gate, the control scheme is kind of a mess.

The game quickly introduces Timed Hits as it spews tutorials and after a little experimentation you start to get the hang of it. More or less you need to nail them in relation to the attack animations and you are informed you got it right if you know what to look for, but the benefit is there are two tiers of success and you can still benefit if you’re a little off.

On writing

The humor on display is great right off the bat, with the first NPC bringing a self-awareness highlighting Mario being a silent protagonist and then asking Mario to rescue the princess "like you always do." Notably, Princess Toadstool was abducted from Mario’s own front yard this time around, amid butterflies on a tuffet. So Mario is certainly proactive, though Bowser in this case is essentially his next door neighbor, with Bowser’s Keep being an adjacent location.

The humor continues with Mario jumping on a table and walking off onto thin air to communicate the bridge collapsing on his second visit. Making his way to the castle, he takes this a step further by demonstrating an ability to shapeshift into both Bowser and Toadstool as he pantomimes what’s happened to the Chancellor. One Toad answers that he didn’t stop a thief from running past because he forgot his bazooka at home and I did legitimately laugh at that. Mallow, the first additional party member you pick up, who is introduced as a "tadpole" (which the game is quick to note this is "despite LOOKING NOTHING LIKE ONE" as someone who is much more clearly a cloud) and who had his sole coin stolen and cried so hard it rained, takes the opportunity to turn Mario into the thief, somehow abusing Mario’s newfound shapeshifting powers on his behalf, without so much as a lampshade in sight, which is kinda great, to be honest. Honestly, all of this is 100% up my alley. Maybe it’s just because of the mix of cartoon logic and what would normally be cynical self-aware sarcasm being played as innocent self-aware sarcasm because the ’90s really were a more innocent time in many ways, but you know how I keep saying almost everything from the ’90s aged like milk? Consider this an exception. Removed from the "Edgy, Xtreme, and Angst" that mars so much of the decade’s media with every "-ism" under the sun, gore, and passé "maturity" straight from the nearest teen’s bad writing, the remaining bits of randomness and intentional lack of subtlety really can still work. There’s "juvenile" and then there’s "innocent" and this gets a LOT of mileage out of "innocent."

Even with all that, there’s also a callback in Mallow’s introduction in that he can’t jump to save his life (something notable for a "frog" that the game is quick to comment on, leading him to smash face-first into and slide down a wall in his initial scene), but that NPC who tricked (forced) you into jumping before does it again by asking you to show Mallow how you intend to save the world, which is exactly what Mallow needs to catch the thief. The game doesn’t penalize you for not getting the joke right away, but it does reinforce it in a way that combines story, humor, a callback, and something just a little bit heartwarming.

If there’s anything in the writing to gripe about, it’s the proliferation of spelling errors and UK quote handling and just small errors peppered everywhere. None of this seems to affect the meaning of anything, but the game really just needed someone to do an editing pass and this is apparently a constant all the way through. It’s a real shame, because the writing is otherwise brilliant and it’s a real pain to have a typo knock you out of it. The quotes are especially irksome because they’re consistent about it and this game wasn’t even released in PAL regions.

On tutorials

The game is really at its best when it’s not spewing tutorials at you and I think the biggest problem is that it lets you go ahead and play right away and then only after a big initial event does it start explaining the mechanics to you that can’t be done environmentally. And it does it in a way that immediately kills the momentum. These tutorials are skippable, but the Toad you end up following all the way to town really just has too much to say and not all of it is constructive.

The levels, on the other hand, are fantastic at environmental instruction. While there’s very little of this in the tutorial dungeon outside of how battles initiate, the game really picks up after that, inviting you to experiment a bit in Mario’s house and the save point outside of it. The first real dungeon introduces enemies that hide and rush you from behind cover to guard treasure, puts one on a rotating jump-launcher flower to teach you how those work, and includes Spiny enemies to teach you that your Jump specials might not be possible on all enemies, provided you actually try to use them before buying an accessory in town that negates that. Knowing what little I do about how typically bad of an idea it is for Mario to jump on anything topped with spikes, I didn’t make the attempt. But the honest truth is that Mario hits hard enough unarmed with a few levels in him to take out basically everything in the area in one standard attack anyway and with his abilities being so expensive compared to your initial pool of Flowers, there’s little incentive to waste them. It only gets more comically redundant when you pick up the Hammer.

After you get Mallow, you also quickly come to understand that EXP is evenly divided between the party, which means you start having to play with rounding math if the bonus damage didn’t already introduce you. Odd numbers get rounded up; even numbers get rounded down. This makes Goomba trios your best friend early on for grinding Mario up since that means 3 EXP, but also for grinding Mallow a level or two because it still means 2 EXP when so much else is only going to give you 1, and while Mallow starts at level 2, you’re going to want to grab him a level or two just to make him more useful and get him an efficient healing ability. In fact, Mallow’s abilities are quite a bit cheaper than Mario’s and they’re weaker overall, but seem to hit all enemies, so in terms of efficiency, you’re really winning there.

All of this is organic learning in some way or another and the game gives you plenty of save points when there’s something you might mess up to avoid you losing progress. Even just in town, I saved at the Inn because I knew from watching a random video that there was a missable Frog Coin you needed to nab by jumping off a Toad’s head. It took me 4 tries before I nailed it, but hey, I have a Frog Coin! Living in the future has its benefits.

General thoughts on mechanics

I think, right out the gate, that the game has a lot going for it, in terms of what’s on offer and how much of it is in your control. Movement in the field is held back far more by the run button being hard to hit than it is by anything else and the difficulty combining it with jumping is really a control issue that would have been better served by reversing them, as I said. It’s not like the game doesn’t give you ample reason to know how to jump. Even with my stubby fingers, I could have gotten used to it, and it would have made traversal a lot cleaner. I feel like the only reason running is so deprioritized is to artificially lengthen the game, as areas seem to be fairly small even though dungeons are multiple screens. Running would allow you to zip through them fairly quickly, even if many of those screens make you travel every inch of them with winding hallways. By making it easier to jump, and knowing Mario typically attacks by jumping, the game pretty well tricked me into thinking I’d get an advantage by jumping on enemies to initiate battles that simply doesn’t exist, as there don’t seem to be any encounter priority mechanics at all. Ultimately, the game uses very simple math and finds ways of abusing your assumptions to make you think it’s more complex than it really is in ways that make you more likely to waste your time, which is in its own way the most actively harmful thing you can do, because time is the one thing you never can get back. Not that running is particularly easy in the maps, with even the town engineered in such a way to make it harder than necessary. It’s just a little frustrating that walking is just a little bit too slow and running is somehow both a perfectly acceptable speed and a bit too fast to control easily with the maps engineered adversarially.

Beyond that, battle mechanics are good despite being held back by the button controls. It’s very easy to experiment in low-stakes battles to get your timing down and the ideas are good, which I think you see taken into the Paper Mario games in some form and refined a bit. I have more to say on that in my prior review (which I didn’t intend to release first when I began writing them both), as I broke down and got an N64 and Paper Mario at a criminally low price, but in brief, it’s a sort of inverse of this in many ways and is less focused on the RPG aspects. Battles here go quite well, even if all semblance of difficulty is removed by a few levels of grinding.

I think, in a way, that making the whole party share Flowers is of a unique benefit in that it adds strategy to combat where most battles are so easy that it’s not worth using skills at all. Mallow, with good timing, can one-shot enemies as well as Mario can early on, and Mallow is seemingly considered the least useful character. I have to wonder if that’s more a product of my play style (grinding the party silly) and general experience from The Legend of Dragoon and Final Fantasy VIII where respectively almost all attacks require additional buttons and where the timing for a crit is not telegraphed by anything but the animation itself. Regardless, I had to go out of my way to throw a little into Mario’s inital Jump because it’s the only skill in the game that adds its own use counter into its damage formula and at 250 uses is the most powerful ability in the game at only 3 Flowers, albeit against only a single target.

A little further in

Let’s actually talk about some of this, actually, because now that I’m hitting the second dungeon, there’s a bit more to the experience. There’s a save point there right before a jumping puzzle that more or less requires you to use the dash button and jump buttons at the same time to cross a gap by leveraging a pair of floating blocks you have to "walk" across a gap. I’ve gone though this a couple times and reset because I missed the coin, but what I REALLY missed was this is where the gloves come off and despite there being enemies down there, it may be easier to reset than get back on the blocks if you fall off, i.e. the save point is there because this will put you in what at first blush looks like an unwinnable situation, but really just penalizes you with infinitely respawning enemies and requires a bit of precision to fix, provided you have that precision. I took a break after having gone back there to fight the enemies before thinking that there’s no way out, but prior to that I did a little grinding.

You can pretty quickly see the way Jump builds and after a couple bonuses to your Flowers, you can do it up to 5 times with 15 Flowers. This makes it fairly easy to grind in the starting dungeon and it’s really here where you can start seeing the numbers creep up even against the Goombas. Where it really hits you that you’ve been missing something is with the Paratroopas, who only have 10 HP anyway and go down just fine to normal attacks, but take something in excess of 100 from a single Jump. Because Jump is its own damage type in the game that things can resist or be weak to, and of course the Paratroopas are going to be wrecked by it like always. I eventually got experimental and tried with a Spiny without the Jump Shoes just to see if Mario would actually take damage and, no, but more predictably, neither did the Spiny. So the Jump Shoes don’t prevent damage from spiked enemies like I initially thought, but Jump attacks absolutely wreck certain enemies and putting aside whether that’s necessary or not, grinding Jump a bit over time certainly won’t hurt if you’re grinding anyway. I could have done myself a huge favor using it while I was grinding levels anyway. And this is not reflected in its apparent power in the menu, so that and your missable first Frog Coin are examples of things the game simply doesn’t tell you. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just a frustrating thing for a completionist. I tend not to do a guide run for my first unless it’s clear that’s the best way to enjoy a game, and living in the future, it’s maybe not the case here, but knowing what’s missable ahead of time certainly saves me on that completionist frustration.

Anyway, from the research I’ve put in, your damage types are Jump, Fire, Ice, and Thunder, with unaligned attacks being down to base physical and magic defense. There’s also, just, a ton of status and priorities on status to worry about because you can only have one at a time, but it’s all logical enough for the most part. If you’re going to rely on damage types at all, well, they’re concentrated in Mario and Mallow: Mario having Jump and Fire; Mallow having Thunder and Ice. Everyone else is purely non-elemental. Ironically, enemies do cast Fire, Ice, and Thunder abilities, but there are no apparent individual resistances to them for the party and the only equipment that protects against them protects against all of them and Jump while they’re at it.

Begin game dev rambling:

Some things do just end up on the cutting room floor, so individual values to work from might have been part of that or might have been removed from the game because the enemy math only accounts for double, normal, and nullified damage, which may have totally wrecked the party if any of them had weaknesses, leading to balance issues unless something was done to tweak that with percentages or something. The way it sounds, so much of what adjusts damage in this game does it before it hits the actual stats that accessories that halve elemental damage probably insert themselves before the damage ever reaches the party member. That’s not a wrong way of doing it by any means; it just means that any such additional resistances handled by player stats would have needed fundamentally different math than the game generally has that would have absolutely slowed it down with floating-point numbers and when you’re programming in Assembly and having to worry about the limited number of cycles the CPU has in V-blank every frame, performance doesn’t always afford you the luxury of division and rounding across 3 characters. And if you’re Square being given the chance to touch something as closely guarded as Mario, having something not work right or be unbalanced or just make the game less fun on Nintendo’s timetable is not a risk you want to take unless you have assurances you can nail it. Should Bowser resist fire? I dunno, should he? Taking a swim in lava doesn’t generally seem to bother him, but fireballs do. Should Geno as a wooden puppet go up in smoke if fire looks at him funny? Logically, sure, but then by how much before it starts being distinctly un-fun? How much should wood resist Thunder or Ice? What about Mallow? Should he resist everything? He’s a cloud. Sure, a cloud should be immune to its own Thunder and Ice, but can you really burn a cloud? Not really, seeing as it’s water. How do you stop Mallow from being essentially untouchable to magic damage regardless of his magical defenses? These are questions that require Nintendo’s approval and rigorous testing and Nintendo being Nintendo, unless presented with a marvelous result that convinces them it’s the right choice, is going to either say "no" off the bat or put the kibosh on it after you wasted effort. Maybe you could make items that individually protect against them, but then you have to place them in shops or chests or enemy drops and in a short game, there might not be the real estate for that. It certainly seems that way given there’s indication that weapons were supposed to be able to have elemental properties that went entirely unused. Sometimes in streamlining a game, you just need to make sacrifices.

End rambling

I will say the gloves are very much off by the third dungeon, a sewer level, and that that dungeon ultimately made me put the game down in favor of Paper Mario not because the enemies were terrible or even because the dungeon was terrible, but because any sense of linearity went out the window and I just didn’t have the energy for the ways the dungeon wastes your time, because if you fall into the water in this place, it’s a slow trek all the way back to the start before you can get out and do any more exploring. That alone made me tap out for a few weeks because it just got tiresome. It also pulls the nasty trick of making you think a spring pad at the very end might be your ticket out only for it to make you exit the dungeon on the beginning side and respawn all the enemies, which is just plain cruel and makes zero physical sense. The boss isn’t 100% terrible, but after the springboard and winning the battle washing me into a river where there were multiple paths, I’d had enough all over again. I did ultimately play past that and liked what I saw.

In terms of where this sits in relation to Paper Mario, I’ll say both are more or less equally good for different reasons, but this is the one I’d go to if you’re in for a good JRPG where you’re rewarded for exploration despite it being an older and mechanically rougher experience. You can get used to the controls here like I did and find the game charming, hilarious, and easy enough to grind in. It’s not a prototype of what came after so much as very much its own thing despite a few superficial similarities and the canon is compatible enough that they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive, either. One might even accuse Paper Mario of being a stage play inspired by it, given the number of times Mario has been in real danger across all of the games probably fits on one hand. The various screws and scaffolds in the backgrounds across the series didn’t grow that way and they’re not even shy about it.

At the same time, Paper Mario ended up serving its purpose as a game that’s less RPG and more Mario for a few weeks where I just didn’t have the patience for exploration and while I did eventually get frustrated with that as well when exploration became more of a thing in it, and especially when it left me underpowered and unprepared for the next area, and extra especially when I realized it has its own special ways of wasting your time, I never really felt like Super Mario RPG was a better place to escape to, because ultimately the problem was too much RPG in my Mario game when I just wanted to turn my brain off. In contrast, earlier in owning both of them, I quite favored Super Mario RPG because an RPG in a Mario mask was exactly what I was hoping for and Paper Mario just felt shallow in comparison at that early stage. In many ways, it has remained a much shallower experience despite getting much wider. Super Mario RPG isn’t a deep RPG, but it is definitely an RPG with Square’s fingerprints all over it. Even as an introductory RPG, it is an RPG first and a Mario game second, with all the territory that comes with.

Let me stress that it’s not a bad RPG. Just because it’s an RPG in a Mario mask doesn’t mean it’s not a quality experience. In terms of what it’s done, it’s kept many of the Mario staples and translated them to an entirely new genre. I think Square deserves credit for doing that from an outsider perspective, because ultimately, the game knows what makes Mario tick, yet has its own surprises. As much as the tutorials kill the momentum, they also are kind of necessary to explain mechanics that aren’t readily apparent and the game opens itself to you very quickly. Could they have been handled better? Oh, heck yes. But they’re also used as little as possible.

Ultimately, I give my seal of approval to the game, because while there are definitely some rough edges, it did things that had never been done before, took risks, and ultimately delivered an experience that’s unlike anything before or since. In essence, Square took Mario to the third dimension before Nintendo did, introducing the 3D platforming we accept now under a 2D isometric game with pre-rendered 3D assets that look more than a little like claymation, which was kind of a thing in the Nintendo Power magazine covers and makes sense for the era. The often edgy humor isn’t the type that Nintendo would have dared to try, but it’s balanced by an innocence that would just be boring without it. It’s a quirky, funny, interesting game that still looks fantastic when viewed as originally intended on CRT. It’s a worthy addition to your collection.