The Super Mario series has never had the sturdiest of mythologies. For years, kids around the world would obsess over any shred of continuity Nintendo would throw them in order to better understand the portly plumber’s world just a bit more. For better or for worse, the series was an open sandbox of imagination, until one fateful day Nintendo decided to conduct a wild experiment. In 1995, Nintendo would unveil a bold new role-playing game developed by Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) starring their beloved mascot. The result would be an inspired title whose effects can still be seen in the franchise to this day.
Times were tough for the North American RPG market in the early nineties. Square, the developer of many of the before mentioned classics, knew there was much work to be done before fans would accept things like hit points or XPs in their video games. Attempts had been made by the company to create a more “Western-friendly” RPG to cater to the region’s tastes before with little success. Simplified storylines and stripped down mechanics did little to change Western apathy to the genre and only served to alienate Square’s already established fanbase.
In an attempt to cater to both the Western market and the growing need for a “beginner’s RPG,” Nintendo approached Square to develop a role-playing game featuring Mario, knowing he would be able to attract players from both sides of the Pacific on name recognition alone. The result was magic, but it surely could not have been easy.
To start with, the world of Super Mario has never had a clear set of rules for its universe. This is largely by design since Mario’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, has always placed fun gameplay and approachable mechanics ahead of overwrought storylines or nuanced characters. Other forms of media struggled with this when adapting Mario to other mediums such as animation and film to largely mixed results.
It just was not possible to create a nuanced storyline out of the Mario mythos outside of “knight going to save the princess from a fire breathing dragon.” Square’s solution to this was to create their own storyline free of any of the baggage the Mario series had up to that point.
The storyline in Super Mario RPG is at once familiar and fresh. True to the spirit of Miyamoto’s vision of the series, the game’s story still follows a basic template so as to keep the game as accessible to as many players as possible. One day while rescuing Princess Toadstool from Bowser for the ten billionth time, a giant sword plunges from the sky straight into Bowser’s keep jettisoning both Mario and Bowser miles away.
As it turns out, this sword is actually a living being created by an entity from an alternate reality known as Smithy who intends to not only conquer Mario’s world but to vanquish all that is good and pure in the world by destroying the Star Road, an expressway carrying all human wishes to the heavens. It’s up to Mario and company to save the day by collecting all seven magical Star Pieces in order to make the wrong things right. This might all sound heavy, but it basically boils down to a hero going on an epic quest to collect magical doodads to save the world from evil. What really sets the game apart though is its wonderful writing and characters.
Super Mario RPG is the first Mario game to give Mario’s world a sense of cohesion and depth. By transforming classic Mario environments into fully realized towns and dungeons, Square managed to breathe life into locations previously only used as backdrops. Being able to explore at your own leisurely pace while chatting with the various townsfolk actually made locations like the Mushroom Kingdom and Bowser’s Castle feel like a place you might actually want to visit as opposed to just wracking up a high score.
Heck, the first place the game throws you is none other than Mario’s own bedroom, finally keying us in on the fact that Mario requires sleep the same as the rest of us. This one detail did more to humanize the little red plumber more than an entire two-hour movie did in 1993. And to top that off, Super Mario RPG gave you the chance to not only play as Bowser, but to see what King Koopa’s relationship is like with all of his Koopa underlings. After years of Nintendo demonizing Mario’s archenemy, Square revealed him to be a perfectly benevolent ruler over his subjects, just with a bit of an attitude. This gave Bowser far more sympathy than we ever expected to have before and made it all the times you threw him into a pit of lava a bit more bittersweet.
These sort of world building elements would continue to be incorporated in future Mario titles to come. There are the other Mario RPGs such as Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi, where even more locations are included into the mix ranging from brand new kingdoms to explore to the inside of Bowser’s guts. But even the main titles in the series began to introduce deeper story elements into their design.
This can be seen most clearly in the Mario Galaxy titles, where there is far more dialogue and character interaction than in previous entries. All of this is done to make the player feel more immersed in the world Mario inhabits and none of it could have been possible without the help of Super Mario RPG.
Square’s masterpiece helped to usher in a new era for the Mario series. While light-hearted fun is still the core of the series’ design, Super Mario RPG proved Miyamoto wrong by demonstrating how strongly defined story and characters can enrich an experience rather than hinder it. By taking the bare bone template provided by Nintendo and injecting sharp writing and genuine character to the proceedings, we were treated to one of the finest games on the Super Nintendo and one of the most charming adventures Mario has ever had.