A lovingly crafted refresh of Mario's RPG legacy
Super Mario RPG is one of the first video games I have memories of. Releasing in 1996, it represented a bold new idea for the Mario franchise through the collaboration of Square-Enix (formerly Squaresoft) and Nintendo, with its colorful and aesthetically pleasing art direction, fascinating new world for Mario to explore, and bevy of original characters. It would go on to be regarded as one of the best Mario games on SNES, while also spawning multiple successor titles that would branch into their own sub-series of Mario games each with their own spin on its vision. Naturally, with such a successful legacy, it only makes sense that a remake would roll around eventually given the game’s reputation—even if this remake took about three decades! After such a long time for a game to be deeply embroidered in the minds of its fans, can a remake live up to the legacy of its source material?
Within the first moments of starting the game, I knew I was in for a treat. It needs to be mentioned: as far as faithfulness to the source material goes, Super Mario RPG is absolutely perfect. Every possible detail in the environments and the game itself is covered here, I’m talking something as minor as the title screen changing after the game notices you have a save file past the opening prologue. If there’s a little Easter Egg or funny secret you remember being there in the original, you can find it and experience it again. Every nook and cranny’s been covered, and the undying respect it pays to the original material is apparent from as early as the first hour of gameplay!
Super Mario RPG’s aesthetics have been transferred over perfectly, too. Bringing the pre-rendered world of the SNES original to 3D was something I couldn’t really conceive of as possible, but after seeing it here, it transferred over remarkably well. All of the greatness of the original’s visuals—right down to its wonderfully smart usage of an isometric view-point—is preserved in all of its glory. The updated visuals are absolutely gorgeous, too, so on top of being really faithful to the original game, it also looks incredible!
One of my favorite examples of this has to be Star Hill: in the original game it looked good enough, but very basic compared to many of the game’s other areas. However, it’s wonderfully improved in the Switch version, not just with the more complicated lighting and wider bevy of visual effects, but the amount of added detail and the reduced saturation of color. Updates like this are present throughout the whole game, and each and every one of them makes the already great environmental design pop out even more.
Every bit of charm in the original game’s world is also present here. It’s not limited to the environments, either. Every single character and enemy has been updated and recreated just…..perfectly. From the odd suite of enemies like Frogog and Hobgoblin to the entire supporting cast of characters like Booster and Punchinello, it’s amazing seeing all of these designs completely intact with absolutely no substantial changes. It helps this remake feel really authentic and novel. No concessions were made here at all, it’s absolutely Super Mario RPG down to its very core—to say nothing of the many new animations each character received.
Enemies now have a fun little death animation, and all of them are different, the Enigmas fall apart, Claymorton gets knocked off of his weapon—it’s just oozing with charm! Even things that the original game merely implied through in-game text have been brought to life. Ever wanted to see Croco’s tail get lit on fire? Claymorton being stunned? To finally see a visual for these events was just awesome as a long-time fan of this game. I must give additional praise to the design updates for the main cast as well. Mallow and Geno are largely the same, but I love the look of Mario, Bowser, and Peach in this title. Mario in particular is absolutely adorable in how they modelled him to scale with the original sprites, and all of his fantastic key poses and pantomiming quirks have been carried over masterfully.
Super Mario RPG’s soundtrack has also been excellently touched up. Unbound by the limitations of the SNES sound hardware, Yoko Shimomura returned to this title to revitalize all of the iconic old tracks and breathe new life into them. The end result? Absolutely fantastic. Not even once did I consider using the game’s built-in retro soundtrack option, which does let you switch it back if you’re not fond of the remake’s music. It never once crossed my mind though, because every song is simply sublime. All of them have been arranged incredibly faithfully with excellent instrumentation choices, and Shimomura even went through the trouble of adding new bridges and sections to each song.
Not a single one is note for note the same in this remake, many of them have been extended by at least ten seconds, and they usually don’t begin to loop until much later than their original counterparts. The end result is a soundtrack that feels even more grand than the original, while maintaining all of the whimsy and sense of adventure it had baked into its sound. The same can be said of its sound design too, mixing in resampled audio from the original game alongside carefully chosen new sound effects, everything just sounds RIGHT in this remake, and it pairs so nicely with the enhanced visuals.
Of course, what would an RPG be without its dialogue? Super Mario RPG had one of the best localizations out there at the time of its release in 1996, and I’m happy to say this remake preserves all of that quality. The dialogue certainly isn’t 1:1 with the original release, but it keeps all of its important quirks and charms while making sensible updates. Enemies with strange names that were likely the result of a translation error have been fixed, and enemies with highly uncharacteristic names for a Mario game (Oerlikon) have been altered to better match the mood of the game.
The original spirit of the game’s witty dialogue is all the same, though, and there’s even more of it this time around too, what with the added bestiary complete with little tidbits on each enemy. You can even use Mallow’s skill, Thought Peek, much earlier in this game than in the original, and all of those are logged in your bestiary as well. These are some of the funniest little one-liners in this game, and they’re a fun completion goal to shoot for as you’re progressing through the game. Oh and yes, the Toad in Toad Town still mentions ownership of a bazooka. What a silly fellow!
The gameplay remains largely the same as the original title. Map movement is the same as ever with its eight fixed directions and isometric platforming, and of course the battle system’s tried and true structure remains. Action Commands run the battle system, and allow you to both increase the damage you deal and decrease the damage you receive from attacks. Each weapon your characters use also come with their own timings, which keeps you on your toes. You wanna use that brand new weapon that does more damage? You’re gonna have to learn the attack timings and master it pretty quickly, or the enemies in that area you’re heading into become far more dangerous.
The variety on the timings for each weapon is also pretty high. You can go from things like a wooden staff to a pair of cymbals to throwing Mario himself at enemies! This remake does mark off Action Command timings with a little “!” for a little bit, but after you’ve hit them enough the game stops showing you, so you’d better internalize that memory. Special Moves are a similar affair: there’s a wide variety, but they boil down to a well-timed button press, mashing the button enough times, or rotating the control stick. Nothing particularly complex, but they’re fun enough to master and use effectively.
The battle system’s also undergone some updates to streamline it better. The major ones come in the form of the combo system: as you chain together successful Action Commands, you fill up a large gauge that allows you to utilize Triple Moves, attacks that change based on the composition of your party. In addition, you also get passive buffs that change based on your current active characters as you maintain large combos, further rewarding mastery of the timing systems at play. You can even make physical attacks deal damage to all enemies if you time them perfectly, though the impacts of this are fairly minor as the damage is scaled down pretty harshly. It usually only ended up saving me a turn or two, but it was a very welcome addition that helped keep the pace brisk.
In fact, the other big change to the battle system is what REALLY plays a huge part in improving the pace. You can now block a number of attacks you simply couldn’t in the original. While there are a handful of magical attacks and moves that are still unblockable, many of them have been given Action Command timings. This helps in a number of ways, from making characters like Bowser a lot less susceptible to getting hit by a spell and dying to keeping me far more engaged on the enemy phase in comparison to the original. This is bolstered by a general speed increase on a lot of enemy attack animations and spell animations, which cuts out a lot of down-time the original game had when it was the enemy’s turn to fight back. The battle system was never really a weakness in Super Mario RPG, but I find it vastly improved in this remake, and none of the modernizations it’s received feel intrusive or unwelcome.
These battle improvements alone match up the in-game combat with the pace of the story, which is just as frenetic as ever. Super Mario RPG is a relatively short RPG even by the standards of 1996, and the length is about the same here, too. While it is short, it makes up for its brief time by having incredibly memorable moment-to-moment beats in the story, and this remake captures the essence of those moments perfectly. From the reveal of Mallow not being a tadpole to the mine-cart ride in the Moleville Mines, everything happens fast and it’s as stimulating as ever, especially with the added touches the remake has to offer.
This version of the game is further enhanced by a wonderful smattering of FMV cutscenes for key story moments, usually those involving characters in your party. The FMVs look incredible and further bring the already vivid world of Super Mario RPG to life by encapsulating the whimsy and charm of the characters. Super Mario RPG’s story is pretty simple and beat-by-beat, and its main villain really only makes an appearance at the end, but the way the game’s story beats play out make this easy to forget. By the time I even thought of it, I had already reached Smithy and was ready to lay into him and take back Bowser’s Keep.
All of these new additions, alongside numerous quality of life features like autosaving and a fast travel system on the main inventory screen, go a long way in making this version definitive—but these do come with a bit of a cost. Super Mario RPG was definitely not the most challenging game even when it was new, but all of the additions and changes to the battle system do make it a tad easier. Spells do more damage when they’re not guarded, yes, but it’s a matter of learning the timing. The windows are even a little larger than the original release—likely in accommodation for both accessibility and the way modern displays have a different response time than they used to.
The added post-game content amends this a bit, as it contains the hardest fights the game has to offer, and they’re really high quality too! None of them are just your standard “damage race the boss” battles until the very last one, and it still has a twist that really forces you to consider how you spend your turns and how the boss is spending theirs. While it is a bit of a shame that the post-game content is as brief as it is, I do think it’ll last a lot longer for others than myself, as I’m intensely familiar with the original material and have a lot of experience with it. If it gets a little too tough for you in its current state though, the game does have an easier difficulty you can switch to at any time with no penalty, so that’s a nice bonus!
The only other major bugbear in my play experience was the framerate. Before I go any further, the game maintains a full 60 frames in-battle with the exception of the Boomer boss fight, so performance issues where timing really mattered wasn’t a factor. However, on some of the more detailed maps and environments, Super Mario RPG definitely drops frames. It’s not quite as jarring as some other games I’ve seen on the system, but with how silky smooth I’ve seen games run on this console, it’s a little disappointing to see Super Mario RPG struggling to maintain its target framerate in key areas. It’s REALLY noticeable too, the camera gets far jerkier despite the framerate not really dipping that much, and it’s distracting. An unfortunate wrinkle in an otherwise pitch-perfect experience, but far from a deal-breaker I’d say.
All in all, Super Mario RPG is fantastic. This is the kind of remake I’d point to as an ideal remaster. It brings everything you could want from the original release into the modern era while making sensible and thought-out changes to its content. The gameplay updates are all very easy to appreciate and should serve to entice players who didn’t like the battle mechanics in the original. If you weren’t a big fan of how they were there, you may actually enjoy them a lot more here! The sound and visuals are note-for-note without feeling soulless, and the game is just so remarkably….faithful. I’ve used that word a lot, but it really rings true: it’s impressive how faithful this all is, how well it brings everything forward despite the deeply embedded legacy of what it’s updating. This game meant a lot to me when I was younger, and I’m glad that it meant a lot to the people remastering it too. It’s incredibly easy to recommend: if you like Mario games, RPGs, or both, you should play this if you can. It’s worth the time.