Legendary video game companies Nintendo and Square (known for RPGs like Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana — are now Square Enix) collaborated in the mid 90s to create one of the most idiosyncratic RPGs of the SNES era, if not, all time. Today, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars still stands out as an anomaly aesthetically in the Mario universe with its crack-fueled character designs and unorthodox gameplay — undoubtedly as a result of Square’s role in attempting to appeal to a western audience.
I once rambled in my Paper Mario review that while I am not keen on games with heavy narrative emphasis, RPGs remain as one of my favorite video game genres (refer to the linked review for some musings on why). Although Super Mario RPG is most certainly the grind-y type RPG most wouldn’t be able to appreciate, I have a special tolerance for them. That, and the fact that Super Mario RPG is a childhood game dear to me, is why it remains as one of my personal favorites.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who fully enjoys games that encourage grinding. What’s great about Super Mario RPG is that it doesn’t require a lot of grinding but it encourages you to engage in battle just enough in order for the player level up at a seamless pace. Whether it’s prompted boss battles or encountering easily avoidable enemies in the flesh, Super Mario RPG’s leveling system is fair and almost never feels gratuitous or frivolous.
The player progression is supported by a turn-based battle system — which is another element along with grinding that turns most players off to RPGs (random battles is another, but this game doesn’t have them). However, Square does a fine job of making common battles engaging by the use of timing techniques (which would eventually be brought to the Paper Mario franchise) that the player can use to attack, defend, or even make special moves more powerful.
Like any RPG, SMRPG is filled with an abundance of boss battles (that sometimes occur back-to-back!). Of course, these are the best parts of the game because every boss battle is lengthy, distinctive, and highly strategic. Every boss has their own set of special attacks, specific discoverable weaknesses, and unique battle conventions, almost like there’s a “twist” to each boss battle.
For example (in relation to the last trait), the second “major” boss, Bowyer, presents your party with three buttons that represent the three main battle buttons on the controller (special, items, & attack). Each few turns, he’ll shoot an arrow onto one of those buttons, hence preventing the player from being able to use that strategy relating to the button. It is a very neat, creative, and meta inclusion that stands out to me at how vastly imaginative this game is. Beating difficult bosses in Super Mario RPG produces an unparalleled thrill (also, a short note to anyone who knows this game front and back like I do, this was the first time I beat Culex and it was awesome!).
The only component of the battle system that is bothersome, mostly involving the boss battles, is how imbalanced their unavoidable special attacks are. The player should have the ability to dodge or even diminish the damage of special attacks like normal attacks through timing techniques, but they just don’t, so the amount of damage you take from these attacks is based on pure luck. Heck, common enemies will perform special moves that kill in one hit with no numerical damage. This was my fifth playthrough of this game and I still failed (even got destroyed) at certain earlier bosses as a result (I’m looking at you, Count Down).
Another aspect that’s not very fun in SMRPG is the overworld gameplay. Although it seems like Square tries everything they can to integrate enjoyable adventuring into the enemy-laden areas, they come off as mostly weak, leaving nothing to be desired or frankly memorable. Square created pipe mazes, minigames, and platforming (because you can’t have a Mario game without platforming), but the only part I find beneficial in these adventuring levels (as I like to call them) is the level progression. Areas like Kero Sewers, Rose Way, and Land’s End — just to name a few — are ultimately forgettable and monotonous as they are my least favorite sections that I just tell myself I have to “get through” every time I play this.
Much like how the Paper Mario franchise seemed to succeed from SMRPG’s gameplay, it also seems like Paper Mario succeeded SMRPG’s personality as well. The writing is humorous, there is a wealth of diverse characters, and the story is simple, epic, and makes as a perfect quest for children (especially nerdy children like I was (and still am)). Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this was also the first game to humanize Bowser (another thing the Paper Mario franchise later picked up).
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars is one of the many great RPGs developed by Square in the 1990s. It’s worth mentioning again that it will surely not be most gamer’s cup of tea, but I still find it as exhilarating and enjoyably whimsical as the first time I played it. The battle gameplay is pleasantly strategic, the shopping system is reasonably balanced, and there is a copious amount of rewarding secrets and sidequests in the very much alive world of the Mushroom Kingdom.