A foe named Smithy and his evil gang disrupt the nature of Mario’s world by plummeting a colossal sword through the center of Bowser’s keep, tossing the classic hero and nemesis out from the very midst of their historical struggle over the princess of Mushroom Kingdom. Now ousted from the very meaning of their existence, Mario, Bowser and other allies you’ll collect must use a turn-based attack system to battle their way back into Bowser’s fortress and restore order to the world.
Mario brings the pain with his jump attacks and hammer swings while Princess toadstool can toss out crowd control spells like ‘Mute’ which prove to be a great waste of a turn. Better to just whack things in Super Mario RPG and maybe leave the Princess on the sidelines for characters that can do just that. For instance, Bowser packs a fat stock of hit points and will dish out good damage with spiked flails, claws, and other weapons you find in the climbing tiers of shops throughout the game’s towns.
Still room for one more, though, and so you might just add Mallow, a child who’s convinced he’s a frog but looks nothing like one. This introduces a sub plot of identity crisis that is solved along your journey from continent to continent, using a world map to travel to and from towns and dangerous environments of roaming critters. Mallow makes a great mage and can spend the party’s shared pool of ability points to electrocute enemies on the field or rain max heals on wounded party members. So no, he’s definitely not a frog.
Time your basic strikes with an extra button press as party members do a wind up animation and you’ll tack on extra damage. New weapons provide different animations, but once you get their timings down you can again enjoy a groovy battle theme and pound away. It’s an incredibly easy time for the first half, where battles demand no real mental activity from the player. But the isometric environments do give ample room to jump and sprint past enemy patrols to dodge this tedium, while occasional riddles and light puzzles sprinkled give some relief.
Future battles aren’t exactly harder so much as they are needlessly stretched out. You’ll come across magic staves that stand there and just heal themselves. Other enemies, well into the game now, still only poke you for 1 or 2 damage of your 150 or so hit points. And if these pests are only vulnerable to magic damage? Then you’ll simply have to sit through an epic spell cast from Mallow for the 100th time. Super Mario RPG’s mechanics are assuredly more roundabout than riveting.
Worse still are those foes that pose a promised threat without ever delivering. For example, an evil radish with a fork will begin the battle asleep. One would expect that waking him will incur a sort of wrath, but he’ll just poke you with his fork for a cool 22 dmg, 100% of which you can negate to 0 with a easily timed block. Now consider a pack of flying koopa troopas that harass you with spears as the fat one of the bunch charges an attack for several rounds. Should he finish charging, well, he’ll smack you for about the same as what the little guys are already doing. Incredible.
It shouldn’t be implied that Super Mario RPG needs a difficulty spike. It in fact provides plenty in the ending gauntlet of boss battles that devolve into the damage races, luck, and rigorous healing that JRPGs 10 years older have well and done accomplished and to just as disappointing ends. It might instead take out the nonsensical elements that merely serve to make a more ‘epic’ adventure, where even its wonderful humour and goofy characters somehow manage to overstay their welcome. How much dialogue is really needed to tell such a whimsically simple tale? A great deal, it so happens, where Mario has to get through several dialogue boxes every time a townsperson is excited to see him.
The quirkiness Nintendo is so great at infusing into its Mario games is nonetheless apparent, and the RPG experiment is, if anything, a faithful rendition of a familiar genre. Perhaps with a lot less grind and a platforming environment that doesn’t look like vomited playdoh, Super Mario RPG might have been something more than just an amateur attempt at imitation.