As Mario and his unlikely gaggle of heroes faced down their umpteenth Bomb-omb while climbing the madhouse tower of Peach’s latest captive, I found myself with some time to think on the nature of remakes. Super Mario RPG is, in many ways, the platonic ideal of a remake, especially as it concerns Nintendo’s oddly guarded older titles. A ground-up, lovingly rendered monument to the 1996 Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars SNES game, the 2023 Switch entry is every bit the kind of remake fans of the original could possibly want. Gorgeous, accessible, and slavishly accurate, Super Mario RPG takes a game that for its time was subversive and refreshing and concerns itself only with ensuring that game is perfectly represented on modern hardware.
Only, those kinds of experiences are nearly impossible to emulate, at least in their emotional truth. Remakes like Resident Evil 4, and to a lesser extent Dead Space, fundamentally understood this and, while still largely accurate to the original experience, reimagined concepts from their foundation texts and were in turn able to reproduce not just the mechanical but the ethereal. Super Mario RPG, in its starry-eyed quest to perfectly recreate Legend of the Seven Stars, stops short of trying to reimagine the impact of the original and settles for a well put together, if essentialist, recreation. In effect, if you’re wondering if this is a good remake of a game you loved, then the answer is a resounding yes. But if you’re wondering how the experience of Super Mario RPG feels in a contemporary market, the answer gets more complicated.
Battles are easy to grasp and approachable
Super Mario RPG is all in its title– a traditional turn-based RPG system bolted onto the side of Nintendo’s long-running platformer. Trappings from both genres are seamlessly woven together here, just as they were in 1996, as Mario and co set forth across a vibrant hub world with explorable pitstops, dungeons, and boss battles. Isometric play spaces are navigated with streamlined platforming, Mario able to jump around modestly linear zones with items to nab and foes to dodge, or engage. There are no random encounters here, every possible battle is visible as soon as you enter a space.
When things kick off in earnest, Mario and two of his assembled allies will enter into a conventional battle. If you’ve played any turn-based combat before, Super Mario RPG will be immediately familiar and comfortable, the game’s difficulty rarely spiking, though you can bump it down further for the sake of convenience or engaging a younger audience. Heroes can unleash basic attacks, bolstered by equipped weapons, use special magic moves that range from strong offence to tactically defensive, whip out an item or simply guard against what’s to come. Almost all actions in battle can be enhanced by a timed button press, a relatively short window in which you can tap A to bolster your attack and cause splash damage, or negate an incoming attack with a shield, though status effects can still permeate.
Nail enough of these action inputs and you’ll hit 100% on your gauge, allowing you to unleash massive attacks that have adorable, bespoke animations and are never not satisfying. This system keeps the player engaged well enough, and the visual prompt on when to push the extra button eventually fades as the game recognises you’ve learned the pattern for yourself. It all works, just as well as it did back in the day, but with its rhythms learned in the early hours, Super Mario RPG’s combat settles into routine a little too quickly. Towns house shops for you to grab better gear and leveling up allows for a boost to three baseline stats but the simplicity of these systems teeters between charming throwback and outmoded.
Don’t talk to me or my son ever again
But the lasting charm of Super Mario RPG isn’t necessarily in its bones, the game truly coming to life when it leans into its better writing and, well, vibes. In terms of raw narrative, the game won’t blow you away; a routine Peach kidnapping goes awry when sentient weapons from outer space crash into the Mushroom Kingdom, destroying Rainbow Road on the way down. To match the might of the Smithy Gang, Mario teams up with Square original characters Mallow (some kind of talking cloud, I think?) and the best goddamn boy in the biz, Geno, a toy puppet brought to life by another celestial being and given incredible magic abilities. I never played the original game but I immediately understood the Geno effect, that shit is timeless, S-tier character design.
Their quest to reforge Rainbow Road, and learn a bit more about themselves along the way, plays out much as you’d expect. Fortunately, the game drops the Peach damsel schtick eventually and allows her and Bowser to both join the roster, making for a supremely charming little band of heroes that playfully works within established Mario archetypes. But it’s in Super Mario RPG’s margins that this thing really sings; as you visit towns and meet new faces, you’ll be treated to a bevy of whip-smart one-liners and amusing meta-jokes. There are times when things waver a little too cleanly into series tropes but largely, the world and tone of this thing is utterly delightful.
What it puts in that wonderful world is a little less so. Ostensibly to break up the battles, Super Mario RPG is littered with minigames along its narrative path, relatively simple, timed affairs that see Mario jump and dodge his way through raging rapids, runaway minecarts, and far too horny suitors to name a few. While the framing of these events is often in line with the humorously entertaining world, the actual act of playing them is oversimple and overlong, each new one that cropped up another moment I was taken out of the otherwise polished experience. Diehard fans of the original will at least be thrilled at how closely these resemble the SNES game, right down to the utterly cooked side-quest instances.
Minigames are both charming and kinda annoying
It gets back to the nature of this thing as a remake, a hyper-detailed recreation that rarely stops to consider if the thing it’s emulating would be better represented by a touch-up, or outright change, here or there. Again, the emotional truth of Super Mario RPG is somewhat lost on me because I’m not playing this game in 1996, the landscape has so fundamentally shifted that a once unique pairing of mechanics and some self-aware writing isn’t enough to wow. I lament the loss of a 2023 Super Mario RPG that sought to capture the absurd magic of the original but can happily acknowledge that this game was never meant to be that and in its intentions, narrow as they may be, it essentially succeeds.
In no small part thanks to the game’s (almost) perfect aesthetic and tonal craft. Super Mario RPG is gorgeously crisp, with models and world both coated in a plastic-adjacent sheen that gives this thing the feel of a toy box come to life. Menu UI lacks the character befitting a world as rich as this one, with ultra-clean readability standing in for any discernible art direction, but it’s a rare misstep for an otherwise exceptionally well-realised little world. You’ll also have the ability to switch between the original SNES soundtrack and Super Mario RPG’s truly exceptional orchestral score, a move that placates traditionalists while serving to highlight just how good the new music truly is.
I’m ultimately glad Super Mario RPG exists. I’m even glad it exists as it is here, a pitch-perfect remake that drags one of the stranger bits of Nintendo’s history into the light, allowing new audiences the chance to experience it, new RPG players a welcoming and family-friendly gateway into the genre, and fans of the original a lovingly restored version on modern hardware. It’s good, very good even. For my gold coins, a romantic ideal would have made it great, smoothing some of the edges for modern audiences while sharpening others to give the game the same impact it would have had nearly 30 years ago. Super Mario RPG is beautiful, entertaining, reverent and a little too effortless.
Reviewed on Switch // Review code supplied by publisher
- November 17, 2023