Square must have cornered the market on awesome with Final Fantasy. Yes, I can say “I love those games!” emphatically as though someone had offered a roomful of people a potion that would make orgasms last fifteen minutes each, and they will only give the potion to the loudest, most excited person in the room, but I still might understate the effect of those games. See, people keep going to Square and handing over the rights to their personal characters, requesting they scan them, digitize them, and build a game around them. And this doesn’t mean any yahoo on deviantart with a thrice-yearly web comic about a stick figure super hero who beats up all the people who called him names in high school. No, Square has people handing them Batman. And Disney (which means we’ll likely see Darth Vader team up with Sora in Kingdom Hearts 4). And, of course, Nintendo’s own Super Mario. Apparently, Shigeru Miyamoto felt his favorite character still wallowed in obscurity after his debut fifteen years ago, and thought that redesigning his game into an RPG might help Mario find his niche.
The game opens with the Super Mario Super Cliche. Bowser kidnapped Princess Toadstool. Mario goes to the castle to rescue her. Pretty standard stuff, and thankfully, Square only subjected us to that torturous redundancy for the first ten minutes of the game. In the middle of Mario’s duel with Bowser, a sword big enough to loosen even Crocodile Dundee’s bowels falls from the sky and embeds itself in Bowser’s keep, presumably until a titanic-sized King Arthur comes along to declare his rule over an entire solar system. But in absence of giant boy kings, the sword declares the glory of the Smithy Gang, and claims the Mushroom Kingdom in the name of Smithy. The force of the colossal impalement sends Bowser, Mario and Peach flying to various assorted parts of the game. Mario assumes a quest has begun, although no one ever really states whether he wants to rescue the princess or defeat Smithy, but both those points become irrelevant about five or six hours into the game when he meets up with Geno, a spirit from the Star Road, searching for seven star pieces destroyed in Smithy’s latest giant knife-throwing circus routine. Without the star pieces, the world will have no more wishes. And go.
The design team attempted to create an RPG that still had the feel of a Mario game. As such, Mario retains his signature special abilities. Namely, he can jump, and subjects of the Mushroom Kingdom constantly request demonstrations and/or autographs from him. In fact, other than his basic attack, Mario can only either jump on or shoot fire at enemies in battle, and leveling-up only teaches him upgraded versions of those two attacks. Jumping in battle consumes three flower points, the game’s version of MP, except the party shares one communal total of FP rather than giving each character their own. So if Geno shoots off his beam too much, Mario simply won’t have the energy in him to jump, and will have to resort to blunt trauma instead. Until the battle ends. Then he can jump until his shins shatter without even stopping to catch his breath. While the game functions perfectly from a technical and mathematical standpoint, that inconsistency really marks the game as confusing, to say the least.
For instance, the first half of the game sees Mario hunting down Princess Toadstool and rescuing her from a bizarre man-child with the most severe case of Asperger’s syndrome I’ve ever seen. The game relegates her to the role of Damsel in Distress because, let’s face it, if she didn’t enjoy the thrill of a good kidnapping, she would probably have upgraded her security after SMB 3–if not after the original SMB. For contrast, the introduction to the title screen shows her sitting alone in the middle of a field staring at flowers when Bowser swoops in–on the same clown-duck thing he used to kidnap her in Super Mario World–and carries her off. After you rescue her, though, she joins your party and, despite fighting with stereotypical glove slaps and healing spells, actually shows a remarkable competency in battle. So, uh, Princess…how about rescuing yourself for once? Sound like an idea? Give Mario a day off and bust out of Bowser’s dungeon yourself.
Beyond that, Mario displays quite a few skills that would have come in handy in some of his other games. For example, touching monsters without throwing himself to the ground, screaming in pain. Maybe taking more than one hit, or having the ability to block? He apparently can shape shift, which he uses in lieu of language, but not for anything practical like a stealthy disguise or a hilarious mistaken-identity comedy-of-errors. Maybe, though, these abilities mean to offset his nasty habit of standing around in silence watching various major enemies escape. I mean, yeah, he catches up with them later, but why not make the game a little shorter and fight them now? At least the weapons he can equip show some consistency. Mario can use hammers, alluding to his days fighting Donkey Kong; a turtle shell, an obvious reference to his side-scrolling, koopa-stomping adventures; and uh…gloves, which hearken back to his ability to break blocks with his fist? Maybe? Or referencing his time as a referee in punch out? Super Mario RPG really excels at these nods to Mario’s history, which players of the older games may appreciate more than those just coming into the series in the last fifteen or twenty years (god, I feel old…they released this game eighteen years ago!). One room in the penultimate dungeon even requires you to leap over barrels thrown by an ape.
So I’ve put this off long enough–I know everyone loves this game, but yes, I found issues with it. Three-dimensional platforming didn’t work well in Super Mario 64, which felt like playing skeeball blindfolded. The attempts at action-platforming on the Super Nintendo upgrades that analogy to…let’s say, playing piano blindfolded while wearing hockey gloves over numb hands. Also you can’t hear the piano. For most, but not all, attacks, special abilities and items, you can tap the command button at a certain time during the animation in order to receive an upgraded effect; however, counting for the difference in animations, the uncertainty of whether or not the attack has an upgrade, and the lack of a clear point to double-tap the button makes this…uh, let’s say like playing banjo in hockey gloves? (Hey, I don’t have a limitless supply of analogies and I just have to make them up based on what I see in the room!) Geno’s special “charge” attacks almost never worked for me, but honestly, regular attacks outclass special attacks by so much in this game that I rarely used flower points for anything but healing. Square included these elements in order to give the game a more action-oriented feel. Thank you, Square, for interpreting the challenge in turning Mario into an RPG as “How to make it feel less like an RPG.”
Also, Square populated the Mushroom Kingdom with enough enemies to rival a plague of locusts or an invasion of army worms. In a genre where people criticizes most games for repetitive, time-consuming battles, “adding more enemies” really doesn’t make up for a short game length. And no, the solution employed–handing out exp with the generosity of a Republican in a soup kitchen–doesn’t really fix the issue. In fact, if I spend twenty-some odd hours in battle alone, I’d appreciate it if I could finish the game a little higher than level 25. Character growth, for the most part, remains static, so no matter who you use in battle, they all level up at the same speed, and learn their predetermined skills at a predetermined time, allowing for no more customization than adding one or two points to your choice of stat at each new level. Because fighting Smithy with an attack power of 225 made a world of difference compared with 200. (And before you ask, I dumped all of Geno’s bonuses into his special attack, and even at level 25 his physical attack did more damage.)
I know everyone loves this game and it makes top-ten lists all the time. And in all fairness, I liked the cartoonish feel to it as well as traveling through a Mushroom Kingdom filled for the first time with people and villages and things other than jutting ends of pipes, piles of bricks and other mostly unfinished attempts at improving infrastructure. But the game feels more like a novelty than a masterpiece. Worth playing, maybe, but not often. Also, Mole Village gives off a vaguely racist vibe.