Though I was solidly in its core demographic—I turned 20 in 1996—I didn’t play SNES standout Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars until well after its initial launch. Still, despite coming to it a couple of decades late, I always understood the appeal; the unlikely mash-up of Nintendo’s Mario and company paired with game mechanics more akin to Square’s Final Fantasy franchise was just too wonderfully weird to resist.
This undeniable charm helped it to find new fans like me in its Wii (2008) and Wii U (2016) Virtual Console re-releases, as well as its inclusion in that elusive mini-console, the Super NES Classic Edition (2017). But the fans’ cries for more Mario RPG seemed to fall on somewhat deaf ears, with the franchise instead splintering into two “spiritual successors,” the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series. Both were great in their own right, but neither quite scratched the same itch as their esteemed forebear.
Now, as we close out 2023, Super Mario RPG is finally back with an almost 1:1 remake of the iconic original on the popular Nintendo Switch system. Despite its stunning increase in audio-visual fidelity, the game remains very much as you remember it. This means that its many highs (and a few unfortunate lows) still typify this nod-and-a-wink approach to the conventional turned-based JRPG.
Our unlikely tale begins with the arrival of a new threat in the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario’s obligatory attempt to rescue Princess Peach from Bowser’s clutches is interrupted by an invasion of living weapons, with a massive sword quite literally inserting itself in the Koopa King’s beloved castle.
We quickly learn that this incursion has also broken the Star Road—sort of an aerial wish-granting superhighway—and that Mario and his allies must reclaim its seven star fragments to restore the world to its rightful state. They do this by defeating the Smithy Gang and its many minions in turn-based combat… with a twist.
Mario allies himself with Peach, longtime frenemy Bowser, and two special characters, Mallow and Geno, but his three-person squad can only accommodate two other active members at any given time. All three characters can choose from the traditional JRPG battle commands… or, at least, Super Mario RPG‘s quirky versions of them.
These include attacking with an equipped weapon, using an item (which can sometimes result in a “freebie,” meaning you gain the positive effects while the item in question isn’t actually consumed), and other options such as defending or running away. Characters also learn and develop special moves, unique attacks and buffs that can be executed by expending points from a shared mana pool, here called Flower Points.
Whether you’re attacking an enemy or healing an ally, each character turn typically includes an Action Command, a timed press of the A button that can increase the efficiency of your chosen action. You can even use Action Commands to block or reduce incoming damage. As you can see, it’s pretty much the bread and butter of the Super Mario RPG combat system.
Your choice of a three-person party is also important, as the successful execution of Action Commands fills a gauge which, once it reaches 100%, can be expended on a powerful three-character Triple Move. Triple Moves vary depending on your party makeup, so experimentation is key to determining your preferred posse.
As your party levels up, your characters’ skills and stats increase, making them more formidable soldiers in your war against the ultimate big bad and his cronies. These include Mario series staples as well as game-exclusive characters that seem perfectly out of place. This ensures that, even as you’re equipping hammers and jumping on Goombas, Super Mario RPG always feels like its own thing.
In between navigating an expansive overworld map and battling it out with Action Command-enhanced combat, you’ll also uncover hidden secrets, ingenious minigames, and a story that, even by modern standards, remains brilliantly outlandish. In short, everything you love about Legend of the Seven Stars is still here in this contemporary Super Mario RPG adventure.
Unfortunately, this release does little to band-aid the original game’s shortcomings. First and foremost, the 2.5D isometric platforming still feels stiff and unforgiving. When you’re simply tooling around a given level looking to get the drop on an unaware enemy with a well-placed jump, things are rosy, but any detail work—landing on a moving platform or trying to jump from one climbing vine to the next—seldom works as anticipated.
This only becomes more apparent in the game’s third act when you approach the six doors of Bowser’s Keep. Two doors lead to multi-part battles of increasing intensity, two lead to action levels that require precision movement, and two lead to weird memory and logic puzzles. While you only need to complete four to continue, you’ll still need to choose the lesser of two evils, clunky-controlling jumps or head-scratching trivia, both of which feel rather out of place in a game that’s exquisitely accessible up to that artificially prolonged denouement.
Yet even with that said, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Super Mario RPG to roleplaying fans, from novice to enthusiast. The game world is wonderfully erratic, mixing and matching elements from Mario canon with strange new swings that make for a satisfying experience overall. In my roughly ten-hour playthrough (using the game’s new Breezy difficulty mode), I explored the world to my heart’s content, but I never felt like I had to needlessly grind or backtrack—both earmarks of JRPGs from the SNES era. That meant I had ample time to take in all the absurd ambiance and to pause at my leisure to peruse the game’s comprehensive Monster List and truly appreciate its still outstanding soundtrack (available in original and newly updated flavors).
Completionists, on the other hand, can expect several times as much gameplay as they track down every secret, replay levels for hidden goodies, and explore the additional content unlocked after the main game’s credits have rolled.
Whether this is your first time or a return trip, I have no doubt you’ll enjoy this beautiful new version of the SNES classic. In fact, even the remake’s warts-and-all approach makes for an interesting study of this roleplaying anomaly. In the end, Super Mario RPG stands out today just as it did in the mid-’90s—part Mario adventure, part JRPG, and (almost) all fun.
Review materials provided by Nintendo of America. This post contains affiliate links. I’ll admit it: I like Mallow better than Geno.