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Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

Year released: 1996
Company: Nintendo/Square
Genre: Read the title again

A previous review mentioned that most video game consoles are often designed for a target audience with an age that matches my shoe size. However, RPGs tend to cater towards a more mature group of gamers. The plots are more complicated and internal than the standard "Blast off and strike the evil Bydo Empire!"1 The game is formatted to emphasize strategy and cunning over brute force and thumb speed. Some may consider Super Mario RPG to be a kind of gateway, introducing younger folk into the genre. To do that, though, would trivialize the game's quality. Super Mario RPG is a good game, certainly not the worst I've ever played2, although one has to consider just what would be left of the game if not for all the extra bells and whilstles that enhance it.

First off, the plot is somewhat different from most all other Mario games. Yes, that's right: the purpose of this game is neither to rescue Princess Toadstool, nor is it to save the Mushroom Kingdom. True, the opening does have that paradigm fully in play, but not ten minutes after the game begins does the entire storyline get turned on its ear. Some evil sword by the name of Smithy takes over Bowser's Keep, sending Mario, Bowser, and the Princess in all different directions. To make things even more interesting, there comes a point when Bowser actually works with you! True, the idea of the good guy and the bad guy joining forces to overcome an even greater evil has become quite cliché after being used so many times, but it was surprisingly well-crafted in this game. Bowser was put in a lose-lose situation: be humiliated by joining up with his rival, or be humiliated by being evicted from his own abode.

Still, there is one element of the plot that never ceases to get my goat. If I remember correctly, I seem to recall some old superstition about Mario actually having a brother or something. I swear, this guy's been the Phillip Michael Thomas3 to Mario's Don Johnson since about '93. For once I'd like to see Luigi get some action in a game that isn't edutainment. Aside from that quibble, the story works. It's a bit lightweight, but Mario games were never epics to begin with, so you can't fault the makers for keeping with the spirit of the series.

The presentation is fairly representative of all games released in the latter years of the SNES' life. This is not to say it's totally good, only that a lot of other games were made like this one. The scenery and animation is spectacular, managing to capture the whimsical ambience that makes the Super Mario Brothers universe so cool. Still, the characters look a little bit too digitized. I like to call this "Donkey Kong Country syndrome", where the sprites are pixelated so sharply that they clash with the softer backgrounds. It's a reasonable enough gripe to dock a point off the Visual score, but aside from that the programmers really hit the nail on the head.

I'm a bit hot and cold on the audio aspects, though. The battle themes are terrific; funky enough to fit in with Mario's colorful, cartoonish environments, but still conveying a sense of urgency and struggle. As far as the other themes are concerned, however, less praise can be made. Save for Mario's Pad, which is probably the best non-battle music in the game, everything else fails to stand out. Yes, the sad music is kinda sad, and yes, the tune behind the Mushroom Kingdom has a nice, bombastic flavor to it, but it doesn't leave as much of an emotional impact as I think it could have.

The play control of this game is its weakest link, I'm afraid. It seems to forget one of the most important rules in an RPG: Simplicity is your friend. I'm sure that most of us are familiar with the typical convention when it comes to other RPGs. A executes a command, B cancels it. Square also uses the X button to call up the main menu, but that's still just three buttons. Unfortunately, the folks who programmed this game saw a need to assign each button a different use, whether in battle, wandering around or in the main menu. And while I can live with the four different possible actions in the walking mode - after all, there has to be a way to incorporate Mario's trademark jump into the game - but in battle mode it seriously confuses things. Instead of the standard menu commands, the game has each button perform an action, and you have to use that button each time you want to confirm an act. All too often I try to perform a special ability or use an item, only to instinctively hit A to affirm my command, resulting in an attack prompt.

It doesn't stop there, either. The view in the game is isometric, meaning the land is set at a 45º angle. The controls, though, don't seem to take this into account, and it's somewhat difficult to control Mario with total precision. This would not be so bad if jumping from one platform to another were not such an important part of the game. Also, the game has ditched the concept of the critical hit in favor of the player timing his attacks, so that if the player hits A just as the character is about to uncork his attack, it does more damage, and timing the button when an enemy fights can reduce or negate the damage done. A noble idea, but it just doesn't seem to pan out the way it should have. It would've been better to perhaps increase the strength of the player's basic attacks and make the big hits more uncommon. As it is, most enemies usually don't bite the dust unless one or sometimes two players use the timed attacks on it.

The game isn't all that difficult, though. In fact, I'm always operating under the assumption I had when I played Chrono Trigger, that the point where my party hits the wall is right around the corner. This is because battle victories award fewer money and experience than I've grown accustomed to. Surprisingly, however, I've progressed about halfway through the game and have yet to find that wall. Still, I like the way that the enemies are in plain sight on the field, although I would've liked it better if they had further developed this idea, in a similar vein as Earthbound. Perhaps a free attack if Mario stomps on the enemy or something. There is one similarity between SMRPG and Earthbound, though - they both suffer from a lack of room for the party to carry items.

As for just how fun the game is, it's certainly a lot better than many other games out there. The generous helping of mini-games and sideshows certainly enhances that consideration. Unfortunately, one has to wonder just how enjoyable the game would be if they took out all those mini-games and SMRPG played a lot straighter. Granted, the humorous plotline adds to the fun, but the game isn't the most captivating RPG on the docket. I don't see myself specifically reaching for this game when I have to reach past FF3 and FF2 to get to it. Credit is due, however, for making a game that seems to appeal to both younger and older gamers.

In short, Super Mario RPG does a reasonably well job of being jolly and elementary enough to get the kids involved, while not becoming a cakewalk and thus turning off us young adults. Still, there seems to be a little more sizzle than steak.

1. If anyone has a better plot summary than that, I'd like to hear it.

2. That honor goes to The 7th Saga.

3. When I first published this review I called him Anthony Michael Hall. See what may become of Luigi?

Overall Ratings:

Play Control:
Technical Score: 12
Challenge: (Easy)
Thrill: (Boring)
Aesthetic Score: 19
Overall Score: 74%