“God this looks crisp,” I actually said aloud to an empty room as Super Mario RPG burst to life on my Switch OLED. It was late, the kind of end-of-week late that aches in more places than one, and with no real prior knowledge of the game beyond whispers of its bizarre reputation I booted up Nintendo’s latest remake and promptly had a little moment. Super Mario RPG looks to have come from the same lineage as that equally gorgeous The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening remake from 2019; a classic, but strange Nintendo title plucked from history and reworked to have the appearance of a glossy toyboy. While Link’s Awakening was far more explicit in this art direction, the Super Mario RPG remake retains a similar, hyper-saturated whimsy that instantly communicates to the player that this ain’t your daddy’s Mario (well, it is if you think about timelines and average Switch owner demographics but let’s not get bogged down).
To lend clarity and context to anything I’m about to say about a game that absolutely has its fans, my relationship with Super Mario RPG is extremely distanced. I’ve caught the occasional mention of it in YouTube essays to fall asleep to, and I’m broadly aware of its cultural cache for throwing turn-based RPG combat and genre tropes into the Italian plumber’s mixer, but that is the extent of it. So, for all its reputation as the strange, distant cousin of the franchise, Super Mario RPG (of the same name as its 1996 Super Nintendo originator) begins rather plainly. Peach, written in her pre-revolutionary form, quaintly gathers flowers in a field (the dream job as a leader of state) before being promptly kidnapped by Bowser (another, different dream) and whisked away to his imposing castle on the hill. Mario, spurred to action, gives chase and the trio are quickly engaged in the aforementioned turn-based combat without much in the way of pomp and/or circumstance.
The initial gleam of the remake, the shotgun shell to the face of vibrant life, scampering from this intro to leave in its place a pretty plain set of menus and sparse vibes. Mario has access to a baseline attack, items, special moves, and some miscellaneous defensive options that grow over time, each represented by a colour coded button prompt around him on the battlefield. Elsewhere health bars, target selection, and even screen swipe animations that lead into conflict all feel a little too clean, crisp, and legible but lacking the kind of character the overarching art direction and tone had led me to imagine. There’s very little sense of place in combat sequences so far, nicely drawn backdrops are nice but without some punchier combat music or visually arresting environmental work, the game’s opening hours can feel a little off.
Early engagements have been an expected array of tit-for-tat exchanges, utilising some fancier attacks for higher damage but at the cost of a flower currency, and the game’s razor sharply timed attack and defence prompt. For a split second before a swing lands, you can quickly press A to inflict higher damage or mitigate some coming your way. I need to get further into the experience to truly suss this out but in these early hours I’ve been confounded by the timing required, the prompt lasting for all of a frame or two of animation and instead requiring pre-emptive pushes to activate. It does actively engage the player in a combat system that can lead to tuning out at times, and as you successfully land hits a combo meter is building in a rewarding way, but the frustration felt on every turn is something to keep an eye on.
Screenshots don’t do this game’s vibrant world justice
Still, it’s difficult to stay mad at a game that, outside of combat, offers up so much to appreciate this early on. Between foes, you’ll be traversing small overworld sections, bustling with potential battles, discoverable secrets, and extra lives if you’re willing to risk it for them. These spaces are gorgeously rendered and while not as plastic-y as the ones seen in Link’s Awakening, still lend the game an almost diorama feel, as if I’m watching small, exquisitely crafted figures act out a play in a warped version of the Mushroom Kingdom. The music also slaps so far, an easy-listening blend of remixed tunes and looping combat tracks that perfectly match the strange vibe given off by the aesthetic choices of the game. You can even switch the audio on the fly between the original SNES soundtrack and the modern renditions, a fun addition that serves to highlight exactly how modernised a lot of the original game’s work has been.
But oddly enough it’s the writing in Super Mario RPG that has me most hopeful for where it could go after its opening hours. Sure, the Peach kidnapped nonsense was a particularly disheartening beat to kick things off, but soon the world is torn asunder by a giant talking sword from outer space, Toad is cracking wise with genuinely funny jokes, and the implications of where I think this is all headed have me incredibly keen to see why exactly this game, beyond its mechanical novelty, has been resurrected for a modern audience.
Super Mario RPG releases on November 17 on the Switch.