Even among the many standout titles in the Super Nintendo’s game library, the RPGs developed for the system by Squaresoft (now Square Enix) are special.
Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI are probably the crown jewels, but Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy IV are nearly as revered and influential. Trials of Mana and Live A Live would only officially come to North America decades later in the form of remastered rereleases, but dedicated fans had already translated them unofficially, such was their desire to share these games with more people. Even lower-order releases like Final Fantasy Mystic Quest or the SaGa series have an appealing story idea or battle mechanic at their core.
But my most beloved Square game as a young pre-teen wasn’t any of those. It was 1996’s Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars.
Developed primarily by Square with oversight and assistance from Nintendo—two titans of gaming at their creative peak—Mario RPG combined a unique battle system and an RPG-style story structure with the familiarity and approachability of the Mario series. And it was a potent gateway drug for me. I showed up because of Mario, and I stayed to play most of Square’s SNES catalog after that. I probably wasn’t the only one.
Nintendo and Square had a messy breakup not long after Mario RPG was released, and Square shifted almost all of its attention to Sony’s PlayStation consoles for years afterward. Spiritual sequels like Paper Mario and the Mario & Luigi series riffed on some of Mario RPG‘s ideas, but Nintendo never revisited the specific version of Mario’s world created for Super Mario RPG outside of occasional Virtual Console rereleases.
The Switch’s Super Mario RPG remake—also called Super Mario RPG, but without the subtitle—isn’t a sequel, but it does shine a spotlight on this weird gem of a game that, while successful, always felt like it got a little lost as a late-run Super Nintendo game released as the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 eras were taking off.
One part Super Mario, one part RPG
If you’re not familiar with the source material, there are two parts of Super Mario RPG. The Super Mario part asks you to navigate throughout the game world by running and jumping and grabbing coins, occasionally bonking floating blocks with your head to get stuff out of them. The RPG part involves powering up your characters by leveling up and finding new equipment, managing an inventory full of recovery and power-up items, and turn-based battles you enter into by bumping into monsters on the map.
The game is much heavier on the RPG than on the Super Mario, but it’s the appealing fusion of the two that makes it a beginner-friendly turn-based JRPG for anyone new to the genre. A fun script also helps, though people familiar with the original localization may note some changed enemy names and a couple of changed or dropped lines (one boss’s name is no longer a reference to the jazz standard “Mack the Knife,” and no characters mention Bruce Lee).
The Switch version of Super Mario RPG is a lovingly crafted and extremely faithful recreation of the Super Nintendo original. Because the source console was only capable of limited, low-resolution 3D rendering, Nintendo and Square used an isometric perspective with a fixed camera to give Mario RPG a three-dimensional world. That perspective is fully retained in the remake.