When Super Mario RPG first dropped, it showed the kind of magic that could happen when two of the biggest names in gaming — Square and Nintendo — combined their powers. The recent remake is a great reminder of how those creative decisions can introduce new players to a genre that otherwise never clicked for them.
I used to be among that crowd, appreciating the idea of role-playing games without ever quite grasping what made them work. Not to out myself as a Dumb Gamer™, but going from reflex-based to menu-based action was jarring for me. When you’re a kid who almost exclusively plays platformers, beat ’em ups, and run-and-gunners, it can be difficult to make the leap to RPGs. It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying, either.
With turn-based RPGs, I felt both too much pressure and a discouraging lack of immediacy. Systems like Final Fantasy VI‘s Active Time Battles were slow cookers. The heat was there, but the execution and the outcome just didn’t grab me quickly enough. When Super Mario RPG launched two years later, it finally managed to bridge that yawning gap. On its surface, the same turn-based trappings of other traditional RPGs remained. Once you leaped into battle, though, you were able to punctuate each decision with a timing-based action. You weren’t just telling Mario to hop on a Koopa Troopa; you were telling him to hop on one and then personally giving that attack even more power.
This spoke to me in a way that your average fantasy adventure hadn’t been able to just yet. When I look back at my history with RPGs prior to 1996, it was a series of earnest attempts without ever being willing to meet the genre on its own terms. In 1990, NES kids who subscribed to Nintendo Power got a taste of RPGs whether they wanted it or not. They were literally giving Dragon Warrior (now Dragon Quest) carts away, and I was happy to get a free game in the mail. As much as I enjoyed the musical sting and visuals whenever a Slime appeared, though, the game itself didn’t leave an immediate impression. To my young, obtuse mind, questing and taking on random battles was a grueling and lonesome endeavor. I probably played the first hour of Dragon Warrior a hundred times, but the menus never set my mind ablaze. The same goes for the original Final Fantasy. Even if the Nintendo Power strategy guide told me otherwise, I was convinced the game ended after the battle with Garland.
Flash forward a couple of years, when there were a ton of alluring boxes on retail shelves begging to be purchased or rented. Seeing games like Lufia & The Fortress of Doom and Final Fantasy II (IV) was a real curiosity. Surely, with so much video game experience under my belt, these would finally unlock some latent desire to select actions while enemies patiently wait for their turn to attack.
Seeing is believing
At the time, I was far more interested in the tales my friends had to tell about RPGs than I was in actually playing them. I distinctly recall a friend telling me about how he waited for Shadow on the Floating Continent in Final Fantasy III (VI), amazed as he dashed out at the last second to escape with the rest of the party. So you could add him to your team after that? Otherwise, he would just DIE? That sounded incredible, but the game itself hadn’t wormed its way in enough to make me want to play that far. In fact, I found it pretty damn difficult to do so.
When Super Mario RPG came out — in the very same year that Nintendo would launch its next console, Nintendo 64, no less — it represented many of the technological leaps that still made the Super NES such an enduring and successful beast of a machine. Following Rare’s act a couple of years prior, Super Mario RPG used pre-rendered characters to give this incredible illusion of 3D, from the battlefield to the environments themselves. It’s just one part of what made Mario’s turn-based adventure so engrossing, but it helped lull me into the sense that I was playing a Mario game first and a role-playing game second.
Live, learn, level up
With those visuals front and center, Super Mario RPG took familiar characters, introduced some fresh faces, and set them all out on a quirky adventure packed with humor. Throw in a fantastic earworm of a soundtrack by Yoko Shimomura, and you have an endlessly charming journey to find the seven stars and take down the villainous Smithy once and for all. You even enlist the help of Bowser along the way, setting the stage for the oddball team-ups that would come to define future Mario RPGs, from Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door to the Mario & Luigi series.
With such an irresistible setup and all that familiarity fueling it, I was finally ready to see what RPGs had to offer. The timed attacks didn’t always make it easier for me — I still recall having trouble with the final boss and some other areas — but it got my foot in the door. Every new move I learned, and every new party member I acquired had the potential to introduce an exciting element of action as that exclamation point I so desperately needed. Suddenly, strategizing started to make sense to me bit by bit. I had a better idea of who I wanted to attack, what moves I wanted to use, and how much damage I could deal with a little extra action on my end.
In a genre that made me feel like less of a player and more of a coach, this was crucial.
Captain M: The Menu Master
Nintendo and Square’s adventure wasn’t the first RPG to offer up something more interactive during actions. Sabin’s Blitz command in Final Fantasy VI lets players use fighting game-style inputs to pull off specific moves. I saw the appeal of this, but it was buried in so many of the typical genre trappings that I was never able to fully appreciate it. That was the case, at least, until I saw the credits roll on Super Mario RPG. By the time I had bested Smithy, I was a little more prepared to see what else the genre had to offer.
Maybe my patience had leveled up, or maybe I finally just saw the appeal in sitting back and taking the time to think about what I wanted to do next. Either way, I was invested. To this day, I wouldn’t say I’m “strategically minded,” but Super Mario RPG helped me better appreciate the pace of role-playing. With some turn-based training wheels, I was able to see the appeal of letting a world unfold before me, focusing on story and characters, and gaining a new fondness for the way differences were settled on the field of battle. I started to really love the way enemies and characters lined up across from one another, each side waiting for the right opportunity to deliver a punishing blow before the other could so much as unsheathe their swords.
This would even inform the way I played with my toys! I used to collect those Star Wars Micro Machines sets, and once I finally grasped RPGs, I found myself facing a party of Luke, Chewbacca, and Han across from a towering AT-ST boss battle. It all couldn’t have happened at a better time. It’s not as if it suddenly became my favorite genre, but learning to enjoy RPGs was essential for a few key reasons. Final Fantasy VII would make its debut on PlayStation a little over a year after Super Mario RPG launched on SNES, almost instantly becoming one of my favorite games of all time. I couldn’t have done it without Mario, Geno, Peach, and some well-timed tapping.
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