Originally titled Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, the new Switch re-release is a souped up remake of the 1996 SNES game, repackaged and polished up for a modern audience. As someone who never grew up with the SNES and thus never had a chance to check out Nintendo and Square’s role-playing love child, Super Mario RPG has proven to be quite the odd delight so far.
For a company that’s notoriously protective over their IPs, it seems unimaginable that Nintendo would ever give another developer free reign over iconic characters and locations like Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom (hi, Rabbids). Here are the keys to the Mushroom Kingdom! Do with it as you please! And Square certainly didn’t waste their chance. Super Mario RPG is a solid turn-based RPG through and through, and while it may feel fairly simple for the most part, it’s not without its charm and little quirks that you’d be hard pressed to find in your typical Mario game.
For starters, just playing a top-down, isometric Mario game feels weird in and of itself. The aesthetic alone invokes memories of old-school RPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre; Bowser’s castle is immediately split into two by a giant sword; and your first party member is an odd fellow named Mallow, who insists he’s a frog but looks nothing like any frog I’ve ever seen. Super Mario RPG is a pretty weird game, but that’s what makes it so compelling.
Littered in between these oddities are some familiarities as well, such as Mario’s iconic theme song, the green pipes that transport you from one location to another, and the ability to jump to reveal hidden chests while you’re exploring the world. Tying all these elements together is a superb turn-based RPG at its core, which keeps you hooked as you rack up experience points and level up as you go along.
On its surface, the turn-based combat may seem rather simple. You and your foes take turns to attack or take an action, you have HP and FP (read: mana points), and every character is statted differently so as to be more useful in specific situations. For instance, Mario is clearly supposed to be your main physical damage dealer while Mallow is your AoE mage, though I suspect you’ll be able to shake up these preset roles as you continue playing depending on how you increase their stats as they level up.
Enemies have type weaknesses as well, and you can also time your button presses to land a critical hit or block an attack to charge up a gauge which lets you unleash an ultimate attack of sorts once it’s full. You’ve got special items and equipment to enhance certain attributes on your characters — it’s all the classic RPG goodness you could ask for wrapped up neatly in a beautiful, colorful Mario-themed package.
And on top of all of that, Super Mario RPG somehow manages to find time to squeeze in some light platforming segments and puzzles, too. That said, platformer haters need not fear. As a fellow platforming scrub myself, I was delighted to find that Super Mario RPG’s little jumping segments have largely been kept simple. While there is some precision and timing involved, you don’t need to pull off any tricky jumps to progress through the game. The world exploration is kept easy and breezy, though you can expect to put in a little legwork if you really want to uncover every hidden chest and secret Super Mario RPG has to offer.
Perhaps that most impressive thing about Super Mario RPG is how modern everything feels. Apart from the slightly archaic motion of having to manually walk Mario from one point to another while going to a new level, Super Mario RPG’s UI has been overhauled to appeal to a modern audience. Leveling up and choosing stats, organizing party members and equipment, and checking your myriad menus feel streamlined and easy. It was almost too easy for me to forget that this was a game that originally launched in 1996.
I’ll have more thoughts to share in our official review next week, but for now, Super Mario RPG feels like a game that will appeal to both longtime fans and newcomers alike. And that’s certainly something to be excited about.