Back in the days before Sony came onto the scene with the all-conquering PlayStation, Nintendo was in the lofty position of having the largest RPG developer in the world producing games exclusively for the GB, NES and SNES. Therefore, after having immensely enjoyed the Mana, Chrono and Final Fantasy series, gamers were whipped into a frenzy upon hearing the news of a Nintendo and Square collaboration starring none other than the Italian plumber, Mario. The year was 1996, the game was Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars and now the game has finally hit European shores for the first time ever via the Virtual Console. Does the game many still deem a true classic manage to stand the test of time?
Unlike most Mario adventures, Bowser is suprisingly nowhere to be found during the game's opening. Super Mario RPG starts out with the all too familiar dispute between Mario and King Bowser as the green meanie has indeed whisked Princess Toadstool off once more. However, events are quickly turned on their head as when Mario rescues the damsel in distress, and begins to goad Bowser, a huge sword - calling himself Smithy - comes crashing down through Bowser's Castle, thus launching the Princess, Bowser and Mario clear of the structure, leaving them all separated and extremely annoyed. Not only that, but the impact manages to shatter 'Star Road', spreading seven pieces of star across the world. Mario is thusly tasked with recovering all shards in order to restore the road to its former glory and re-establish peace in the Mushroom Kingdom. And so we begin our adventure...
As with Donkey Kong Country, from former Nintendo allies Rare, Super Mario RPG's initial batch of screenshots was greeted with slack-jawed bewilderment. Surely graphics of this quality could not be produced on a lowly 16-bit SNES? Could this have been put together on a Silicon Graphics workstation for the Nintendo 64's launch? The reason for this was because of the isometric viewpoint allowing the SNES to process chunky, 3D graphics relatively easily, without looking as rough around the edges as Starwing.
However, for a system that did require a special Super FX chip to process Starwings basic three-dimensional field, this game's aesthetic value was truly unbelievable and still is to this very day, probably managing to look a heck of a lot better than some shoddy Third Party Wii efforts...The final result is like taking Rare's ACM (Advance Computer Modelling) pseudo-3D technique from DKC and having the skilful Square graphic designers using their expertise to finely craft 3D models of Mario, Princess Toadstool, Bowser and everyone's 'favourite', Toad, and the wonderful locations in which the actual action takes place. The game may suffer from slowdown when too much is on-screen at once, but this barely happens and life is peachy...Super Mario RPG was developed towards the end of the SNES's lifespan and it definitely shows as this is the one of the most impressive looking games from the sturdy console.
On the soundtrack front, what do you get when you cross classic Nintendo tunes and Squaresoft's orchestral pieces? A splendid aural experience! And that is just what we are given with Super Mario RPG. From the lush sounding music on the World Map that can be listened to for ages, to the little extra sound snippets such as when you meet Link in one of the Inns and rather than talking to you, he just makes a little noise similar to that of opening a chest in Zelda, everything just feels so perfectly suited to the proceedings.
There are typically Mario-style tunes, like in Bowser's Castle or the village of the Toads, but then again there is a very Squaresoft feel to many of the pieces as well, especially in places like the Forest Maze, where the music could very well have been lifted straight out of one of the early Mana games. So much imagination has gone into many of the tunes to make them appeal to a wide range of gamers and it is something that will score major points with many gamers from the SNES era.
For those that still believe Square Enix is all about making Final Fantasy games and various spin-offs that seem either too boring or slow for the average gamer, that pre-conceived notion should be wiped clear for Legend of the Seven Stars, as it is well and truly an entry-level RPG. In other words, Super Mario RPG aims to introduce newcomers to the genre by using simple play mechanics, instead of the usual tiresome random battle technique, with players instead able to pick and choose battles by avoiding on-screen enemies at most points. The odd dash of humour and a very light-hearted storyline mixed in certainly helps with making this more accessible for the masses as well.
Players start the game in control of Mario alone, using moves such as 'Jump' and 'Hammer' to defeat the evil creatures terrorising the world. However, Mario is soon joined by others: 'Mallow', a Marshmallow that was raised by frogs and can control the weather; 'Geno', a doll brought to life by star magic; the strongest character in the game 'Bowser', who is annoyed that his castle has been overtaken by a supposed nobody; and, finally, even good old 'Princess Toadstool' joins the team. Only three of the mentioned characters can make it into a battle at any one time, however, so switching and planning for specific battles wherever necessary is required. Again, though, rather than in a general RPG where only team-members in the actual battle group gain experience, Super Mario RPG prevents that potential deterrent factor by sharing points amongst everyone in the team evenly, even if they are never used in battle at all.
During the adventure, players must traverse a wide variety of locales, such as sewers, forests, a sunken ship and even up in the clouds as they try to reclaim the seven pieces of star that have been spread across the world. Diversity like this breeds ultimate enjoyment throughout the whole game. Battles will not detract from the fun too much either, as they a simple, yet highly engaging. The four main face buttons come into play, with normal attacks, special powers or magic (like Mallow's Thunder), item usage and defend or attempting to run away all mapped in a fashion that is extremely simple to remove any unnecessary complications. Using magic or special powers consumes Flower Points, which act like Magic Points in other RPGs, though, so careful planning needs to go into some battles to make sure the MP meter does not hit zero before the fight has reached completion. Battling is made more interactive as well, despite being turn-based - as if a player hits the same button again just before an attack hits, the amount of damage done can be slightly increased...and the same is true when it comes to defending, with damage reduced if the player has good reflexes.
Many gamers may well be used to mammoth sized RPGs by now. Sprawling stat-fests, running around trying to desperately level-up as quickly as possible (yet actually taking many, countless hours in doing so) in order to defeat some ridiculously difficult boss. Well Super Mario RPG avoids any such pitfalls. Instead, the simple nature of the battling and the not-overly-tough enemies mean that gamers will not have any trouble with what many deem the side of RPGs that really does turn some folk off the genre completely. Thankfully there is over thirty hours gaming in here, though, without all the hassle of normal RPGs and that is before most of the fun side-quests are completed. Now the game has finally arrived in Europe for the first time ever on Virtual Console, be sure to not miss out on this fantastic effort that still retains all of the charm it had when originally released...
Simple to get into, not too hard to get fully accustomed to, but never so easy as to be boring. Whilst not up able to beat the Square/Nintendo greats, it can certainly sit in their close vicinity!
Between the graphical Kings of Square Enix and the masters of its own system, Nintendo, would you really have expected anything other than sheer perfection? Well, we actually get more than that here, amazingly! Looks better than some Wii games...
As with the visuals side, less than wondrous would have been disappointing - but there is no dissatisfaction here folks! Classic Mario tunes melded perfectly with Square's gorgeous compositions, a marriage made in heaven.
Put into perspective (this being an introduction to RPGs, not a full scale Final Fantasy), Super Mario RPG does its job perfectly, but the simple nature and short play time might leave some feeling short-changed.
The first ever Mario RPG is a superb base for the franchise and has definitely stood the test of time extremely well, feeling like it was only released this year and looking like it as well! There is no need to crack open that piggy-bank any more and search through eBay as for a pittance it can now easily be picked up on VC. Do not miss out on this true classic...