There are very few areas of life the Mario franchise hasn't at some point explored. Mario himself has been a doctor, an amateur kart racer and later on in his career was recognised as a professional athlete when he competed at the Olympic Games in the 100 metre dash against Sonic. Quite simply – he's a jack of all trades.
In 1996, Squaresoft (now known as Square Enix) – the creator of the long-running Final Fantasy series and the brilliant Chrono Trigger – released the first ever Mario role-playing game on the Super Nintendo in Japan and the US. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars was also the final Mario entry released on the aging Super Nintendo. Europe was eventually able to experience this masterpiece, produced by Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto, when it was released as a digital game (with minor alterations linked to localisation and seizure concerns) on the Wii Virtual Console in 2008. With the downloadable iteration of this title now once again available to the masses – this time on the Wii U eShop – how does this classic hold up?
Like other traditional role-playing games, Super Mario RPG is divided up into two segments – exploration and turn-based battle sequences – as you travel back and forth between areas on an overworld. As expected with a Square developed title, many of the design cues are inspired by the Final Fantasy series. Square has done an excellent job adapting the Mario series to the role-playing genre, whilst at the same time adding many of its own unique touches featured in its own games.
Legend of the Seven Stars starts in a similar fashion to other Mario games when Princess Peach (Toadstool) is kidnapped by Bowser. The story takes a twist when a sword known as Exor crashes into Bowser's keep, followed by the the evil Smithy gang invading the world and stealing the seven star pieces of Star Road which help grant wishes to world's inhabitants. Before you know it, Mario is fighting alongside a party of allies including Bowser to restore the level of chaos to its original state, find the whereabouts of Princess Peach and recover the seven star pieces.
Story aside, Super Mario RPG enters familiar territory by immediately throwing players into interactive turn-based battles against enemies such as Goombas, Koopas and lesser known foes across famous locations such as the Mushroom Kingdom and even sewers & seaside towns. Additional role-playing experiences are woven further into the experience, with inns to stay the night at, tool shops where Mario's team can stock up on mushrooms and various other elixirs – or even buy a new set of pants for added protection (in battle). Similar to other RPG titles, item and equipment upgrades occur regularly. Adding to this are puzzles to solve in each environment and other events such as mine cart rides to enjoy along the way.
This is all held together by the lively residents of the world who make interesting, odd and helpful observations – and even humorous quips. Additionally there are cameos from some of Nintendo's other characters, along with a few references to the Final Fantasy series for good measure. Treasure boxes are also littered throughout the world, channelling classic brick-breaking Mario experiences.
The core role-playing experience featured within Super Mario RPG is relatively straight forward. The player begins the game with Mario who then recruits additional party members along the way – levelling them as a team. Enemy encounters are visualised in each area Mario and his allies explore, rather than frustrating random encounters; this won't , however, stop enemies going out of their way to attack the party from the other side of the screen. When Mario and an enemy engage, a battle sequence is initiated. These battles are turn-based and play out with all the usual RPG elements such as having to deal with status ailments and deciding whether or not to attack, defend, use special magical attacks or items, or run away.
The stand out aspect of these battle sequences is the interactive nature, with the ability to have a direct influence on the outcome of the fight with well-timed button presses. Rather than relying on party members' invisible stats to decide which side wins, the player can time button presses to help enhance the damage of an attack, or weaken an enemy blow. Mario, for example, can shoot multiple fireballs, and the more times the specific button is pressed the more damage that is dealt; with his jump ability he can time a press to have more impact. More moves for each party member are also unlocked over time. These timed action hit commands apply to all party members and fall under four separate categories – timed hits, star hits (maximum damage), continuous hits and rotational hits. When a party member gains a new level, players can upgrade one of three stat points – attack and defence, HP or magical attack and defence.
The platform style of game environments and battle scenes are supported by isometric 3D rendered visuals. In 1996 this was considered a technical feat that pushed the Super Nintendo to the limits and captured the Mario universe like no previous game in the series had. By modern standards, the visuals do look somewhat jaded but can still be classed as unique – buildings, characters and environments are both vibrant and lively. The music featured in Super Mario RPG is thanks to the efforts of Japanese composer Yoko Shimomura (known for her work on Capcom's Street Fighter II:The World Warrior); the songs and sound effects all slot in perfectly with the Mario universe. Shimomura even managed to incorporate arrangements from both Koji Kondo (Super Mario Bros.) and Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy series) into the game – creating one of the best Mario soundtracks to date.
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars is not only a brilliant game in its own right - it's a history lesson in how the Mario role-playing series began. Anyone who has played the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series should play Square's original title that started it all, if they haven't already. Super Mario RPG paved the way and inspired both of these series, and for that reason we should be eternally thankful to Squaresoft.