Gaming Memories: Super Mario RPG

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list (and possibly beyond), and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

SPOILER WARNING: This blog contains spoilers for Super Mario RPG.

There’s a fancy hotel in Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars called Marrymore Hotel. For the most part it works like any other inn in the game: you can pay a small fee to rest and heal up your party members. But Marrymore also has a fancy deluxe suite, which functionally serves little purpose. It’s also way more expensive, and you can choose to stay there for more nights than you can afford. Most video games wouldn’t let you do something you can’t afford, but Super Mario RPG isn’t most video games. If you stay for too many nights, your punishment is to work as a bellhop, performing tedious tasks to pay back your debt.

Mario RPG's combat had a great idea that's not been used enough.
Mario RPG's combat had a great idea that's not been used enough.

Super Mario RPG is a game full of character. That’s not limited to the actual characters in the game, but also the game itself. It has fun with the little details like Marrymore Hotel, which pays attention to your negligence and makes you pay in a playful way. NPCs in the world idolize Mario, imitating his jumps or playing with toy figurines. It rains when Mallow cries, Bowser kisses Mario at one point, you fight what are basically the Power Rangers, and it has this music. It’s a supremely silly game, but also a competent one; it never sacrifices its solid mechanics for a gag, which is the downfall of so many funny games. Super Mario RPG’s core loop is typical by JRPG standards of the time -- this was a collaboration with the Squaresoft of the 90s after all -- and crawling through dungeons, leveling up, and finding more powerful items and abilities works just as well here as in its contemporaries. Most importantly, Super Mario RPG leans into one fresh idea that I still don’t think is used enough. Timing additional button presses on your attacks and blocks greatly increases their effectiveness, which makes its turn-based battles feel surprisingly active. You have to constantly stay on your toes, and execute with perfect timing if you want to survive some of the game’s tougher battles. It’s exciting.

But Super Mario RPG is also a game full of characters. You of course have Mario, who is as expressive here as he is in any game. He is joined in the fight by both Peach and Bowser, which was a real treat at the time to see them fighting alongside our hero. But it’s perhaps original characters Mallow and Geno who steal the show among the main cast; Square’s writing chops are really let loose with them, and also with the game’s large and diverse cast of supporting characters. There’s Toadofsky, who you aid with his “composer’s block” by jumping on tadpoles to create music. There’s Johnny, the honor-bound shark pirate who turns to your side after seeing the cowardice of a foe. There’s Valentina and Dodo, who take control of Birdo and temporarily rule the land in the clouds. There’s Exor, the giant talking sword that jams itself into Bowser’s Keep at the start of the game, driving Bowser from his home and into an alliance with Mario. And of course, there is Booster. Who, um, well... is Booster. Your search for the titular seven stars takes you to every corner of the Mushroom Kingdom, interacting with all its wacky inhabitants along the way. Your adventures are not limited to funny encounters either: there are just enough serious, tense, and heartfelt moments sprinkled along the way to make this a more emotionally resonant game than it initially appears.

Don't we all.
Don't we all.

All of those features come together to make Super Mario RPG a polished, endearing game that is a blast to play. It also has a great look to it, and a wonderfully energetic soundtrack that remains one of my favorites. But the 90s were full of solid JRPGs; it took something extra to wiggle its way this far into my heart, which Super Mario RPG most certainly did. Looking back, it served as a fitting coda to numerous facets of my gaming youth. The SNES was the first gaming console my brother and I had for ourselves, and Super Mario RPG was one of the last great SNES games ever released, mere months before the launch of the Nintendo 64. Nintendo’s next console marked the end of not only the SNES era, but the 2D era as well, and Super Mario RPG captured so much of what was great about both. The SNES is almost certainly the console that’s had the largest impact on my gaming tastes, and it was dominated by Mario-inspired platformers and Square-developed JRPGs. Super Mario RPG, then, was a celebration of everything both Mario and Square. To this day it remains one of the few dream crossovers that, quite frankly, doesn’t suck, and it’s hard to imagine a better send-off for possibly the most defining period of my gaming history.

I picked up a SNES Classic Edition in early 2018, and spent a couple hours revisiting Super Mario RPG. Before then it had probably been at least 15 years since I last touched it, but it all came back in an instant: I was quoting lines of dialogue as if I had just seen them the day before. Super Mario RPG is part of my gaming DNA. Its music, its characters, its world, its combat; it’s all a part of me in a way that few games are. And it wouldn’t even work if it wasn’t an extremely well-made game either. Super Mario RPG is the perfect blend of charm and execution, a magical gaming cocktail that feels like home to me, even as it made its own home in my heart.

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