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Super Mario RPG
or, once I was Mallow, a boy of cloud, a boy alone, savior
Well, this essay has run too long for the email! So if you want an easier reading experience, head over to the web version by clicking the title of this post in your email.
Well, in between writing this essay and it’s publication, they’ve announced a remake! I cannot explain to you how excited I am for this, but the following essay may give you some indication.
My main hope is that this means they’ll revive this branch of Mario RPG and we’ll someday see a sequel.
I’ve talked briefly about this game before, but I have a whole lot of thoughts about it.
So many thoughts, in fact, that I pitcheda book to Boss Fight Books about this game. Though I felt I was born to write this dang book, they disagreed and so I’ve decided to just share my feelings about one of my favorite games here, for all of you kind people.
This wasn’t the first RPG I experienced, but it was the first time I’d been the player when experiencing one of these games.
Square, makers of the Final Fantasy series, had been working with Nintendo for about a decade, with each of the then-released six games in the series coming out on a Nintendo console. For a series in a genre that was flying off the shelves in Japan, the sales were relatively low in the US.
With this in mind, Square thought the problem was that the games were too complicated and difficult. Thus and so, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was born. To paraphrasefrom his excellent history on JRPGs coming to the West, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest effectively gave no one what they wanted. Wasn’t able to overcome the genre stigma for the casual gamer but also delivering something too shallow and dull for existing genre fans.
While this was happening, Shigeru Miyamotowas already experimenting with the Mario formula. We had Mario Kart, Dr Mario, Mario Paint, and so on. As Frank Cifalidi’s put it before: Miyamoto thinks of Mario as an actor who can be put into any genre. When it came time that Miyamoto wanted to throw Mario into an RPG, he knew who to talk to. His good buddies at Square had been publishing with Nintendo for a decade so Nintendo tapped them on the shoulder and, in a sense, handed them the keys to the Mushroom Kingdom.
Chihiro Fujioka from Square, who had designed the previously mentioned Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, sat in the driver’s seat while Nintendo—and Mario—regular Kensuke Tanabe wrote it all down.
And the writing is what drew me in then and, twenty five years later, it’s what drew me in once more.
Now, before you get ahead of me, this is not Final Fantasy VI level game in terms of story. In many ways, it’s much more similar to Final Fantasy V in that it’s a bit lighter, a bit simpler, a bit more about experimentation, and often quite funny, on purpose. And, man, this game had me roaring when I played it with my son last fall.
I was eight when this game came into my home. My older brother returned from somewhere with my mom with this game.
This game. This game that my brother certainly picked out primarily because it was Mario rather than because of the RPG in the title. And me? I loved Mario. I’d sit and watch some Mario all day, no problem. So we settled in to watch my life begin to change.
I have so many memories of this game. So many beautiful moments that made me laugh. Just an endless delight to read, but also to play. I love the mechanics here. The way it iterates and evolves what an RPG can be, what turn-based combat can be.
But I’ll stick with the writing a moment longer because reading it again, all these years later, made much of it all new, but, at the same time, it formed a mirror for me, my son sitting beside me. He was silent as Mario, not out of awe—not yet—but because he had a bad case of RSVand had simply stopped talking entirely because it hurt his throat.
Later, he told me the dirus stole my voice which is something I’ll probably remember for the rest of my life.
But watching him there, watching the action, but then hearing it performed through me. Because he’s four, he can’t read and so I read aloud every line of dialogue, creating a unique voice—or trying to—for each character, accentuating the body language of the sprites on the screen.
And body language is important here. Unlike any Final Fantasy or Mario games yet released, Nintendo wanted a 3Dish experience, and so you get one of the most distinctive art styles in all videogames yet available.
While probably not a successful look for all fans, I loved it. Loved the additional animations, the way Mario was able to tell an entire story purely through acting it out, which, I’ll remind you, was something no other RPG on a console was able to do.
And so besides the dialogue that remains funny to me as an adult, there’s also the physical comedy used spectacularly. Even before I read the next line of dialogue, there were times my son would burst out laughing because of the way Mario fell or Bowser growled.
One of the key distinctions of the writing of this game is that, I think, it’s one of the first self-consciously referentialgames where it uses the conventions of its genre as well as the out-of-game level of fame of the characters to tell jokes about the game that work both within the constructed reality of the game but also in our world, beyond the game.
In some ways, it’s a G-rated Philip Rothian take on one of the most well known and recognizable mascots in the world.
Mario is not just a guy in Super Mario RPG. He’s Mario, if you know what I mean.
And Mario is about good times and pleasant mechanics and, as I argued in my previous Mario essay, movement. I’ll reiterate the point made in the previous post here: Mario is his movement. You love videogames because of the way Mario jumped when you hit that button when you were six years old. You kept playing Mario when you were twelve because of the way he slides when you’re running one direction and pivot the other way.
RPGs (J and W) are not exactly known for the fluidity of their movements. Or really even their actions at all. It’s a genre whose primary mechanic—combat—is abstracted.
Compare this to the platformed, of which Mario is the most famous example. In a platformer, it’s all movement. The movement is the mechanic.
So how to transfer the perfection of Mario’s movement to an RPG with Chrono Triggery fights?
You add timing to that turn-based combat.
I mean, this is something that still astounds me. That no other game has ever really picked this mechanic up. When you choose an attack in Super Mario RPG, you can hit the A button again to do extra damage, assuming you time it correctly. Each character has different attack animations, meaning the extra damage timing changes. Going one step further, each weapon that each character equips has a different animation and therefore a new timing to learn and perfect. On the otherside of this, when an enemy attacks, you can time your block to reduce or negate damage. Each enemy has their own attack animation and so you have to learn the timing for each of them. When you do your Specials, you can time things to increase damage as well. And, of course, each character has a variety of Specials, each with their own unique timings.
The most notable—and most satisfying—of these actions is Mario’s Jump attack. Yes, Mario can jump on enemies here, of course, which is part of the meta quality of the script—though I’m sure this was made explicitly necessary by Miyamoto. But if you time it right, Mario will keep jumping on the enemy—there are secret rewards for doing 30+ successful jumps in the same attack—until you mistime a hit. And so, in theory, you could spend entire minutes successfully compounding your attack, the damage piling up.
And I got to say, this feel so damn good, babies.
Combat in RPGs can often get tedious or at least boring and repetitive, because of its abstracted nature and because of the high frequency of random battles causing you to battle enemies thousands of times over your playthrough the 20-40 and beyond hour game.
Super Mario RPG addresses this in two ways.
One, they eliminate random battles; and two, they add this timing mechanic.
This tiny change makes combat engaging every time for the simple reason that you need to focus enough on it to time your hit correctly.
It’s a very minor thing, but, like Mario’s slide, it’s this tiny change that makes all the difference. Of course, if you had Final Fantasy IV quantity of fights, it would tip over into being more tedious than traditional turn based combat’s random battles for the very reason that it remains fun. If you have to be actively alert in thousands of tedious actions…I mean, we all have jobs; we know what this is.
And so the fact that there are far fewer battles in Super Mario RPG makes this added mechanic sing and it makes us dance, even twenty five years later, my whole life pirouetting round this timed action.
a brief aside about my life as a child
I enjoyed being alone.
You could say that I was made for RPGs. Long games you play by yourself where your primary actions are reading and hitting a button. This was ideal for me because it gave me an excuse for my hours of solitude. Used to, I’d just play Legos or invent games for my stuffed animals, but videogames allowed me to throw all those hours of self-imposed isolation into discovering worlds like I’d never imagined.
In truth, I think it’s videogames that led me the long path to Tolkien.
More than that, I loved the bad guys in stories, which is something I see in my own son and worry that it means he’ll be like me. That he’ll be unhappy like me. That he’ll break his own heart like I always have.
And so when Bowser becomes your ally about halfway through Super Mario RPG—and in a very comical way that delights and surprises—I both giggled and watched my jaw fall off my skull.
Bowser and Mario!
I literally couldn’t believe it.
This exact moment was why I wanted my son to be there when I played it last fall.
In all the 2D Mario games—which was all he had seen me play, and also all that I had yet played when first I came to Super Mario RPG—Bowser is more like a force of nature. An evil villain who looms in the background, who sets Mario to jumping across the Mushroom Kingdom to save his lady love.
And so to see Bowser, embodied as a mix of Tony Soprano and Chris Farley, join Mario on Mario’s quest to save the Mushroom Kingdom—which he’d spent your whole life destroying—and Princess Toadstool—who he’d always been stealing!—made his eyes slowly open wide as I playacted and narrated the scene for him.
He looked to me with those wide eyes and said only Bowser!? And my vision doubled, seeing myself as the child I must’ve been when I was eight years old, laughing and casually having my entire world thrown upside down, and seeing my own son’s conception of this constructed world transforming.
In my defense, my world was very small and easy to change. But still!
He still remembers this moment all these months later and sometimes asks me to play the game where Bowser and Mario are friends.
Moments like this make fatherhood the greatest decision I made.
how it ends
Most of you know how this ends. In order to make Final Fantasy VII, Square abandoned Nintendo and hooked up with Sony, where they have remained for the last twenty five years. This momentous game would go on to change the industry overnight, but also cause a sort of fracturing in the JRPG genre, which I’ll discuss when I eventually, someday, write my Final Fantasy VII review.
But the severed relationship between Nintendo and Square also meant that this glorious, singular game would remain forever after its own unique and strange experience.
There is no Super Mario RPG II, despite Super Mario RPG finally becoming that gateway game that Square attempted to make with Final Fantasy Mystic Quest.
Sales dramatically exceeding Square’s expectations for the US market. To understand what they expected, Final Fantasy VI sold 860,000 copies in the West across its first decade.
Super Mario RPG became the sixth bestselling videogame of 1996 in the US, selling over a million copies.
While that’s impressive on its own, it’s worth remembering that it was released four months before the N64 and Mario 64 and also nearly a year after the original Playstation, the sixth bestselling console of all time (at the time, it was the bestselling console of all time). What this means is that Super Mario RPG was released on an aging console during a time where all gamers were looking forward to their next console, to the graphical capabilities of the Playstation and the shining glory of Mario 64 (often ranked among the best games of all time).
There were countless reasons why timing should have buried Super Mario RPG, but instead it became a huge success, ushering in an entry level JRPG to the world market just in time for Final Fantasy VII to capitalize on the growing interest in the genre to become one of the most important games in videogame history.
Even so, the dissolution of Nintendo and Square’s partnership meant that it sort of got left behind by time.
There are other Mario RPGs, but they’re not this Mario.
As a child, I understood none of this. Didn’t even really think about games coming out according to some schedule. To me, games just arrived at birthdays and Christmases. And so I waited for another Super Mario RPG. Waited for more of Mallow and Geno, for more of this particular version of Princess Toadstool—she’s the most important character in the game, in terms of combat, especially if you find her frying pan weapon, which is, somewhat hilariously, the strongest weapon in the game—and more of this hilarious kind of banter.
Sadly, as time has gone on, this game has become increasingly inaccessible. Right now, the only way for you to play it is to track down an old SNES and a cartridge of this game and shell out a ridiculous price. Or you can find one of the limitedly released SNES Minis, which is also balooning in price. Or you can pirate it or emulate it or, maybe, if you already bought it on your Wii or Wii U and still have those consoles, you can play it.
But there’s no simple and legal way to get it right now.
However, if you can find it, you’re in for a delightful experience. I played it repeatedly as a kid, even continuing to replay it after the N64 had taken over our TV because of how delightful and buoyant it is.
While silly and comical and full of parodies and internal satires, it does have a great deal of heart as well. And that heartful journey of a lonely and misunderstood cloud boy discovering not only his family but his own strength through the friendship of Mario was an antidote to this lonely boy sitting in the glow of his TV.
Read the pitch here:
Released four months before the Nintendo 64 and nine months before genre-exploding and genre-defining Final Fantasy VII, Super Mario RPG seemed to be the end of Nintendo’s long and successful relationship with SquareSoft, which began with 1987’s Final Fantasy. Directed by Chihiro Fujioka, who previously worked on SquareSoft’s Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, a simplified RPG intended to usher western fans into the genre, Super Mario RPG did what Final Fantasy Mystic Quest could not.
Selling over a million copies in its first year in the US, becoming the sixth bestselling videogame of 1996, Super Mario RPG would go on to make Best of All Time lists at IGN and Electronic Gaming Monthly. Most importantly, it brought the JRPG to western shores.
My goal for this book is to properly place Super Mario RPG in its historic role of opening the west to the JRPG, which led directly to a game like Final Fantasy VII selling 1.5 million copies in its first week in North America. In doing so, I’ll discuss the ways it both innovated and simplified the genre, inviting newcomers while also providing enthusiasts something new that would go on to define the look of JRPGs in the PSX era. Exploring the relationship between Nintendo and SquareSoft, how they grew together and why they fell apart, I will also explore how Nintendo, SquareSoft, and Super Mario RPG, in particular, molded the person I became.
I was born two months before Final Fantasy’s release in Japan and was eight when Super Mario RPG came out in the US. A sunny, bright day, my mom and older brother came home with a new videogame—always a momentous occasion—for his birthday. He opened the box, slotted it into the Super Nintendo, and casually started playing what would come to be one of my favorite games. A game I would play repeatedly in the coming years. A game whose manual fell apart between my fingers. Last autumn, I played it for the first time in 20 years. This time with my son. And it was everything I remembered it being, but seeing how it opened a wide world of possibility for my son brought me back to who I had been that summer day in 1996.
Mario’s real daddy
If you’re a parent, you know. If you’re not, look it up.
I know about the Mother series