If we’re all being honest here, I’ve never played Super Mario RPG properly. I have many memories of playing the opening hour or so before quickly dropping it in favour of something else. I don’t have a lot of nostalgia for it, but I don’t know why I never bothered to finish it, it’s totally within my wheelhouse. A Square-developed RPG set in the world of Mario around the time that Square was arguably at the top of its game. What’s not appealing about that? The game has forever eluded me, but with the Switch remake due out this month, I suspect many will be able to finally give it a proper shot. I’ve played the first three or so hours of the new Super Mario RPG remake, and I’m annoyed that I slept on it for so long.
The game opens with a cutscene that I remember all too well. Princess Peach is kidnapped by Bowser and taken to his castle. But in a bit of a twist for Mario, we begin our journey at the doors to Bowser’s Castle. We battle, as expected, and Mario wins. But then an even bigger threat emerges. A giant sentient sword plunges into the castle from the sky, destroying the Star Road and shattering pieces throughout the world. Mario, Peach and Bowser are thrown in opposing directions. Thus, Mario must begin his journey to save the world again, but this time from a group of sentient weapons calling themselves the Smithy Gang.
It’s a bizarre story because of how much bigger it feels compared to other Mario games. Creating a larger threat in the Smithy Gang is a nice spin on the traditional formula. But one aspect of the plot I like the most is that a lot of the spotlight is on two brand-new characters who, for some reason, have never appeared in games after this. Named Mallow and Geno, they’re the first two party members you’ll recruit, and both their stories are well-fleshed out. I can only hope that attention continues to be given as the story progresses.
After all the introductions, we begin playing as Mario and travelling through the opening areas, learning about the battle system. My immediate thought upon playing the game is that it feels really smooth. It doesn’t feel like new visuals have just been painted over the top of a Super Nintendo game. It feels brand new, built from the ground up. What helps this feeling is the buttery smooth framerate, too. I’m no frame counter, but it feels like 60 frames per second. Combine this with a bright, colourful and vibrant world to explore, and you’ve got a pretty nice-looking update for a game that had aged poorly, at least visually.
It’s here that I am thrown into my first non-scripted battle against some unassuming Goombas. It becomes evident that this isn’t like any other Mario game. A single jump isn’t the way to take out enemies anymore. Instead, like any good turn-based game, you input moves you want to do and watch them play out as enemies, and your party take turns. It’s an incredibly simplistic system that works well, though those who don’t like turn-based battles won’t find this any more endearing than other games of this ilk.
It’s also here that it becomes obvious that Super Mario RPG was the predecessor of the Paper Mario series. While you can input your moves into battle through the menus, many abilities can be made more potent by tapping an additional button when the action actually plays out. For example, tapping a button just before Mario finishes jumping on an enemy will do extra damage, or in the case of the Super Jump move, add another jump. It’s a simple way to keep battles engaging rather than just sitting there and waiting for your turn.
The remake introduces elements that make the game approachable, too. The most obvious is the new Breezy mode, which, as you’d expect, makes the game easier. But now, there’s a lot more visual information shown on screen, such as when you can press a button to bolster your attack or press a button to defend from an attack. You can even be told when an attack isn’t blockable, too. This might sound like a minor adjustment, but it’s so intuitive that I’m surprised it wasn’t a thing in the original game.
Of course, this does make Super Mario RPG feel a lot simpler than other RPGs, but I would argue that’s always been the point. It’s early days, obviously, but gear and equipment proceed linearly and there has so far rarely been a point where the next piece of equipment I get hasn’t been better than the last in practically every way. There’s a distinct lack of stat management that more hardcore fans would probably want, but the novelty of playing an RPG in the world of Mario more than trumps that for me. If it also serves as a stepping stone to other RPGs, then so be it. This is the gateway RPG you need.
There are some newer aspects added to the battle system that make things feel more dynamic. Every time you perfectly time a move or defend from an action, a meter fills. Once that meter is complete, a special move called a Gauge Move can be performed. This move will vary depending on who is in your party at the time, but it is a nice little crutch that can get you out of a pinch if need be.
And, of course, the game is visually fantastic. It’s vibrant. Scenes that introduce characters with text boxes are now dynamically shot cutscenes. Bosses have little, short introduction scenes, too. All while playing at a great degree of performance. I was worried that replacing all of the sprite work from the original game would make things look generic, but Super Mario RPG’s sense of style somehow manages to escape the trap of looking too generic or clean.
My main worry with Super Mario RPG was that it was just a visually enhanced remake of the game rather than a full-blown remake. Specifically, I had concerns that the speed and flow of the game would be almost glacial. While the creative decisions made to change aspects of the game don’t add a whole lot of new content to the game, they do make the gameplay a lot smoother and flow much quicker than I was expecting, which is a blessing.
There is the issue of difficulty, but to expect this game to get much harder is a fool’s errand. This is clearly positioned to be an entry-level RPG, and I don’t think those looking for a huge challenge will be satiated with Super Mario RPG. That being said, it’s been very tough not to just ruin things for myself and look up whether there are the typical things you can find in an RPG – optional dungeons, tough super bosses and the like, but I’m sure there will be options for those wanting a challenge. I’d have loved to have seen a Hard mode implemented along with the Breezy mode for more seasoned players, too, but alas, it seems to not be.
But for now, having played the opening of Super Mario RPG, I can see why so many people find it so special. It’s an oddly unique snapshot of the time period and a rare collaboration between two masters of their genres. But so far, having spent so much time with the remake, it’s becoming more and more obvious that this is going to be the best way to play Super Mario RPG. Its improvements are small but impactful, and the visual style is as strong as ever. I’m excited to play more, and in a year where there are so many games to play and such limited time, that’s an outstanding achievement and the highest of compliments.