Friday 6 February 2015

Snes Review : Super Mario RPG (Game 070)

I wonder if ‘Super Mario World’ would have sold half as many copies if it were called ‘Super Mario Platformer’. Would people have still flocked to ‘Super Mario Kart’ if it were known as ‘Super Mario Driving’? What about ‘Mario Paint’? A more accurate name would have been ‘Limited art software, with very little to do with a Nintendo mascot’ but that’s hardly attractive or punchy. When it comes to game name clarity, you’d be hard pushed to find a title more direct and succinct than ‘Super Mario RPG’. Though the subtitle, ‘Legend of the Seven Stars’ is enigmatic and exciting, ‘Super Mario RPG’ could never be considered a deceptive title.

Nintendo buddying up with Square would have seemed like the dream paring in the mid-Nineties.  Even though the PlayStation was starting to enter homes, Mario was still at the top of his game, still the most recognisable gaming character in the world. Square meanwhile were riding a wave of success owing to ‘Chrono Trigger’ and ‘Final Fantasy III (VI)’s critical and commercial acclaim. “It was decided in a meeting at the highest level” recalls game director Chihiro Fujioka.
“Nintendo and Square, working together on a project meant they would combine their respective strong suits – the Mario character and RPG development”. Although created by Square it was published by Nintendo. This lead to ‘Super Mario RPG’ taking the play style of a tradition JRPG, but shifting the action to the Mushroom Kingdom rather than the typical quasi-medieval setting.  Instead of colourful haired, angst ridden teens, player would guide Mario and Princess Toadstool. It was a fusion of talent that could only have a positive result, but there was a problem – it wouldn’t be released until 1996.

This was a year before the release of ‘Final Fantasy 7’ on the Play Station. This game is often said to be the reason that Japanese style RPGs moved into the mainstream consciousness. Before this release, any game that depended on number based combat was considered niche. ‘Super Mario RPG’ therefore faced an uphill struggle, with Nintendo simply thinking no one outside of Japan really wanted to play it. The situation was made worse, by the imminent release of the ‘Nintendo 64’, the Snes’ console successor. Audiences already smitten with the revolutionary Play Station were only interested in fancy 3D graphics. A 16 bit role playing game suddenly seemed old fashioned and outdated. As a result, ‘Super Mario RPG’, the glorious child of the Nintendo Square marriage had a very limited run in America and never saw a release in Europe. Despite giving the game a rather luke-warm review in the previous issue, ‘Super Play’ were rather distraught when they reported this news. “This comes as bitter blow to Snes gamers who have remained faithful to the brand even in the wake of the success of 32-bit consoles”.
We missed out, the game is wonderful. Square have taken all the best elements from their most successful JRPGs and beautifully wrapped them attractive Mario visuals. They have created a game that’s both accessible to JRPG new-comers, yet deep enough for genre veterans to still find enjoyment.

The story certainly lacks the epic feeling of Square’s greatest hits. It begins in the most obvious way; Mario racing through Bowser's Castle to rescue Princess Toadstool. However, in the games only twist, during the battle, a giant sword breaks through the Star Road and crashes into Bowser’s castle. This scatters Mario, Princess Toadstool, and Bowser while also breaking the Star Road into seven star fragments. Mario now must recover the Princess discover the purpose of the giant sword and ultimately defeat the new inhabitants of what was once Bowser’s castle.
Although the antagonist is different, to a certain extent, the general story of the 2D ‘Mario’ platform games has been transplanted into a RPG. Other than the twist in the game’s opening, there are few narrative surprises that typify the JRPG genre, no world changing moments, or stories of unrequited love. As soon as you meet Mario’s travelling companions, Geno and Mallow, you get exposed to their back stories and you can easily predict how these will be resolved.

Normally JRPGs can easily be labelled as serious, even pompous. They seem to delight in confusing the audience, bombarding them with metaphor and symbolism. ‘Super Mario RPG’, is somewhat different.  Despite its clear JRPG influences, it never takes itself remotely seriously and instead proves to be genuinely quite funny. Fukioka believes this was simply down to the tastes of those making the game. “There was a lot of programmers who were fans of comedy and stand-up” he acknowledges.
“It was only natural it would end up that way. It was all fine because Mr Miyamoto didn’t get angry, he pretty much gave us a free hand although he did let us know which series characters he wanted to appear”. Its lucky Miyamoto was on board as the bulk of ‘Super Mario RPG’s humour is self deprecating. It knowingly ridicules the Mario series, while also mocking the traditions of the, oh so serious, JRPG genre. For example, the citizens of mushroom kingdom at the start of the game hardly seem surprised that Princess Peach has once again been kidnapped; it is a weekly occurrence after all. Rather than running around in a blind panic, they instead are happy to go about their day knowing the hero in red dungarees will surely save her. Mild concern, only really sets in when Mario’s overly elaborate comedic mime informs them that perhaps Bowser isn’t the guilty party in this regal abduction. Bowser, himself becomes more and more ridiculed as the game progresses. Reluctantly fighting alongside his former nemesis, he is presented as bumbling fool with an inferiority complex. The ‘King of the Koopers’ just wants his castle back. For Bowser it's an adventure filled with many moments of despair.
He “misses the good old days”, holding onto the belief that “no one is authorized to kidnap the Princess except [him]” after all “it just wouldn't be right!" Alongside these knowing series winks, comedy slapstick punctuates ‘Super Mario RPG’. If there is an opportunity for any character to stumble or fall over, they certainly will. Overly elaborate gestures are also the chosen method of communication in the Mushroom Kingdom. If you agree with someone, saying yes simply isn’t enough. Sometimes a frantic nod of the head and wild arm gestures are a far better form of expression.

The characters are all wonderfully animated, with a graphically style that was no doubt influenced by love for ‘Donkey Kong Country’s pre-rendered aesthetic. According to Fukioka, the 3D models for ‘Super Mario RPG’ were in fact made using the very same Silicon Graphics work stations that Nintendo had authorised Rare to purchase. 

“At that time, Square was putting a lot of effort into visual presentation, and they had really pursued this up to the limits of what the Super Famicom (Snes) hardware could do with 2D” recalls Fukioka. “In the beginning we had a traditional top-down map with a 2D Mario, but at a fairy early stage we revised it to a slanted [isometric] 3D perspective”. It was an ambitious design decision that would push the Snes beyond preconceived limits, and to achieve it the SA-1 chip had to be built into every 4-meg cartridge. “The SA-1 chip had four times the processing power of the [Snes]” Fujioka elaborates. Sadly despite “the console’s CPU now running at five times the normal processing power” there still wasn’t enough power to match Squares ambitions to have a game populated by realistic 3D models. “Even with the SA-1 chip, the Super Famicom wasn’t capable of displaying 3D in real time” Fukioka regretfully admits, “so we went with a pre-rendering technique”.  The 3D models created were turned into sprites which gives ‘Super Mario RPG’ a unique look, but one that does still fit within the Super Mario world well. ‘Super Mario RPG’ takes aesthetic steers not just from ‘Super Mario World, but also surprisingly from the visually quirky ‘Yoshi’s Island’. Wil Overton, ‘Super Play’ magazine’s celebrated art director once said that “it’s as if the game has been put together by a team of die-hard ‘Mario’ fans who have anticipated all the sorts of things other ‘Mario’ fans playing would get a kick out of seeing”. There is no denying, that for a 16bit game the game looks glorious. At the time, the Nintendo 64 was about to be released. Many magazine accidentally included still of ‘Super Mario RPG’ in their coverage of Nintendo’s next machine, believing that the Snes game was actually a launch title for the new 64 bit machine. Some critics even considered ‘Super Mario RPG’ to be the best-looking Super Nintendo title ever released, a last minute demonstration of what the Snes was capable of at the end of its life.

It is however, hard to be a fan of isometric viewpoints in an era that didn’t have the benefit of analogue thumb sticks. D-Pad buttons, do not favour diagonals so navigating through the various stages continuously requires you to press two buttons at once. As ‘Super Play’ once noted ‘Super Mario RPG’ also suffers from isometric ‘optical illusion’ problems – it’s not always easy to tell where platforms and treasure chests suspended in the air are supposed to be”.  Moving around this world is haphazard and when you’re trying to navigate between enemies, poor control can sometimes prove frustratingly dangerous. As with all JRPGS, death can be sudden and unavoidable. Much like  ‘Chrono Trigger’, most battles are initiated by running into an enemy .However, some foes also unavoidably run into you meaning random encounters still exist.  This frustrating trait of the ‘Final Fantasy’ games can, without warning, rob you of all the progress you have made in the last hour of play. In his Super Play review Zy Nicholson seemed to believe ‘Super Mario RPG’ was designed for someone new to JRPGs. “This is an entry level RPG, aimed at young Japanese children, with the specific purpose of introducing them to the genre of turn-based menu-driven role playing games”. If Nicholson assumption that “Square’s developers have consciously decide to make [‘Super Mario RPG’ as] ‘My First RPG’” the constant threat of immediate unavoidable death is even more brutal. Failure in battle should throw you back to the map screen with nominal health, you shouldn’t be sent back to the last time you saved. This seems especially unfair, if the death is caused through no fault of the player.

All battles (whether forced or initiated by the player) are turn based with no timer forcing you to act quickly or spontaneously. You have as much time as needed to decide on the optimal attack, and there is surprisingly a lot of different action options to choose from. As is the tradition, battles play out by selecting options from a menu and hoping the action selected causes damage to your opponent. By pressing one of the four face buttons a player can use a basic attack, defend, unleash a special move or use an item on the enemy. Special moves are more dynamic and potentially more deadly, but they drain away your magic points, or flower points as the called in ‘Super Mario RPG’. While health is,  as always, measured by a numbered HP gauge, what's different about ‘Super Mario RPG's battles are their dependence on timing. Each character, in your party of three, will do more damage if an attack button is pressed a second time at the exact time of attack. Special moves take the idea further, with some of them requiring furious button bashing to be as effective as possible. It gives a more dynamic feeling to the turn-based combat, greatly increasing the range of possible attacks.

Your hero’s customisation though, is somewhat limited. You only have three things to modify; their weapon, armour and an accessory. Items can be picked up pretty much anywhere in the game with  chests, shops and even random drops from fallen enemies offering absurdly powerful items from the very start. With the right equipment most battles should prove little trouble after the first third of the game. If anything you feel overpowered, since your characters upgrade so quickly. There is no need to ever “grind” easier enemies in order to be powerful enough to defeat larger ones. Most JRPGs seem to demand leisurely play; you normally spend hours in an area mining treasure and gaining experience. ‘Super Mario RPG’ however runs at a breakneck speed; rushing your through environments and allowing you to navigate across the map in seconds. If the game is designed to be brisk to avoid monotony, it comes at a cost; it’s a short game especially by Square standards.  At most ‘Super Mario RPG’ will take 20 hours and even that is presuming you are looking for all the secrets. While this may be much, much longer than his many platforming adventures, Mario can save the Mushroom Kingdom in a weekend if you’re dedicated enough.

Audibly ‘Super Mario RPG’ also differs to traditional 16bit Square RPGs as dramatic grand music has been replaced with far more appropriate upbeat quirky ditties. Yoko Shinomura’s soundtrack somehow manages to sound familiar yet fresh simultaneously. All the favourite Mario melodies are here but they sound unmistakably Sqaure-esque, and wouldn’t seem out of place in the more upbeat sections of ‘Chrono Trigger’. The fact that these sit so well along side remixes of music from ‘Final Fantasy’ games shows just how well Nintendo and Square work together. 

Fukioka believes that “it was a very close and favourable relationship.” Although Square did much of the development of ‘Super Mario RPG’, the guiding hand of producer Shigeru Miyamoto was felt across production. According to Fukioka, Miyamoto had two main responsibilities when it came to the development of the game. “One was keeping an eye on the handing of Mario’s entry into the RPG world without destroying the Mario Universe; the other was the actual concept of fun in the game.” Evidently, it was because of Miyamoto’s direct involvement that platform jumping action sequences and mini games were included around the typical JRPG fare. Though the isometric view point makes playing these sections more frustrating than they need to be, their inclusion certainly adds a huge amount of play variation, uncommon for a traditional RPG. It all melds together wonderfully, and “the diversity of play styles captivate even the shortest of attention spans” insists Zy Nicholson in his ‘Super Play’ review.

Without doubt, ‘Super Mario RPG’ is a better game because of Square and Nintendo’s working as one. While the story may be light and the customisation somewhat shallow, the game itself plays well, while looking and sounding fantastic. Even with “RPG” written in big letters on the box, I wonder how many Square virgins, bought this game because it was a Mario game. Hopefully they were pleasantly surprised with the new genre he had headed into. Perhaps, these new lovers of JRPGs then were driven on to try a ‘Final Fantasy’ or ‘Chrono Trigger’. Maybe ‘Super Mario RPG’ was even responsible for laying the foundations that ‘Final Fantasy 7’ would build upon the following year. It may not have the length of ‘Final Fantasy VI’ the imagination of ‘Chrono Trigger’ or the beauty and charm of ‘Secret of Mana’ but it is certainly the funniest and most graphically ambitious game Square made for the Snes.

It's telling that Nintendo saved this fantastic game to be their 250th Wii Virtual Console release. A celebration of that magnitude required a game that showcases everything that’s great about Nintendo; wonderful characters, forward thinking ideas and undeniable sense of fun permeating every facet of the game. In this great game this was then all combined with everything that Square had perfected through their own 16 bit releases. In many ways ‘Super Mario RPG’ is therefore a game that includes parts of so many of the Super Nintendo’s greatest games.

Where did get this game from?

The problem with people getting enthusiastic about older games is that there is more competition when it comes to buy the cream of the crop. Anyone who wants ’Super Mario RPG’ knows about old Snes games, it isn’t well known enough to be on a casual collectors wish list. Owing to the fact it has never been re-released on a DS system if you want to buy physical copy of the game you have to get the Super Nintendo one. Demand is obviously made worse by the limited run in the US and the complete lack of European copies.  Nice condition copies are usually snapped up when they get listed on eBay ‘Buy it Now’ and last minute sniping pushes the final auction price. Imagine my surprise therefore when I saw a “semi sealed” copy that was ending in a couple of hours. I checked over photos of the box comparing them to examples online as I was a little wary it didn’t have ‘Squaresoft’ on the box. Evidently, as it was published by Nintendo theirs is the only logo that qualified for the box, and my doubts about the authenticity vanished. Paying just over £100 for a rare game is not something everyone would consider a good buy, but I saw this as a bargain especially as my copy of ‘Super Mario RPG’ is as close to mint as you can really get. I still to this day do not know why it didn’t sell for more. Other copies both before and since have sold for between £150 - £200, so I imagine the seller was slightly annoyed his fantastic condition copy didn’t get reach the same at auction. On eBay, all too often you lose, but on rare occasions sometime you do actually win. 

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