Nowhere else in the usually fantastic sagas that were heavily inspired by Legend of The Seven Stars can one find such a pure balance between RPG traditions and the quirks of the Mario universe
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars marks Mario’s first venture into the realm of role-playing quests, and – in a way – it is possible to say that it shows. That, however, does not mean the title is clumsy or half-baked. In fact, it is an adventure that, many years after its release, still resoundingly justifies its status as a classic. Such a conclusion is not exactly surprising; after all, the game came to be through the hands of not only Nintendo itself, but also by means of the talent housed within Square, the legendary RPG producer that was at the peak of its powers during the nineties.
With the former’s usual focus and determination into polishing journeys starring the plumber to flooring degrees and with the latter’s knack for assembling stellar games of the genre by combining solid mechanics and sharp writing, Super Mario RPG is – therefore – stunningly effective through the entirety of its fifteen hours. It leaves little room open for any sort of criticism and constantly finds clever ways to merge a gameplay style that was usually dedicated to portraying settings grounded on high fantasy with the colors and weirdness of the Mushroom Kingdom.
The reason why Legend of the Seven Stars quite blatantly reveals its position as Mario’s initial role-playing undertaking is related to how traditional it is in comparison to the duo of sagas it would go on to spawn: Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi. Because although it is unquestionable that much of the game’s charm and legacy stems from how it beautifully joins a pair of worlds that seemed to be completely heterogeneous, when put besides those two lines of games Legend of the Seven Stars shows it was partially made by a company specialized in RPG efforts, for the platforming and puzzle-solving components that would go on to be further explored down the line are, here, very subdued.
Yes, as expected, Mario – unlike most of the genre’s heroes – does a whole lot of jumping through the scenarios that constitute the world of Super Mario RPG; and, as a pleasant humorous twist, the adventure is punctuated by light-hearted action segments that have players running, jumping, and avoiding all kinds of obstacles. The focus of Legend of the Seven Stars, though, clearly lies on its RPG components; that is, the sequences of battles that it throws at the plumber and on the character interactions that take place in between them.
What was, until that point, Mario’s most abnormal adventure, starts on a pretty standard day in the Mushroom Kingdom. Princess Peach is seen relaxing amidst flowers and butterflies when Bowser swoops in and takes her away to his keep. Mario gives chase and, in an unexpected turn, quickly makes his way to the villain’s castle rather than having to go through eight worlds just to do so. He confronts the king of the Koopas; the two battle; and, as Mario is about to emerge victorious, a giant sword falls from the sky.
Mario, Peach, and Bowser are scattered through the land, and when the plumber goes back to Bowser’s keep to try to locate the princess he learns that the sword is part of the Smithy Gang. As it turns out, the evil group has destroyed the Star Road, which was responsible for granting wishes, and has now decided to use Bowser’s place as their base of operations for taking over the world. Hoping to find Peach, collect the seven titular stars that will restore the Star Road, and send the Smithy Gang packing, Mario sets out from the Mushroom Kingdom in a quest that will send him around the neighboring regions.
Truth be told, on its own, the plot of Super Mario RPG is not exactly strong, especially when one considers that – as the most traditional of all of the mustachioed dude’s role-playing outings – the game heavily relies on it. But Square, smartly, takes that simple setup as a mere impulse to send Mario and his peers towards some truly wacky happenings. With Mario having to return empty-handed to desperate Toads longing for the return of their ruler, Peach missing in action, and Bowser becoming deprived of his home and army, writers move those pieces around the board in amusing ways, generating a myriad of awkward encounters, hilarious conversations, and weird turns.
Legend of the Seven was the first time ever in which these usually mute characters were pushed into talking; similarly, their home, a kingdom that was more of a background scenario for platforming than an actual place with living beings, was forced into adding some meat to its bare bones. And it is in this previously untouched territory that Square has its fun.
Mario, still a silent protagonist, is left to relate events via gestures and some seriously excellent acting. Peach grows out of the damsel-in-distress mold into which she was born even if she still gets into a whole lot of trouble. Bowser, a homeless tyrant, reveals himself to be extremely worried about what others will think of his current precarious state and of the alliance he has to forge with his main rival. And, along the way, the trio will meet a wide assortment of characters, including two remarkable allies, that will give players an unusual backstage look into the inner workings of the Mushroom Kingdom.
As such, although the straightforward overarching plot is never vastly expanded upon, there is a lot of value to be found in the script of Super Mario RPG, because its situational humor is very sharp and the series of events that have Mario on the trail of the seven stars he is so desperately looking for never stops entertaining due to how out of the heroes’ control some of the occurrences seem to be and how absurdly random and ridiculous a lot of what goes down is.
Those ludicrous happenings are brought to life in gorgeous tridimensional graphics. As a title that came out when the Super Nintendo was in its final days, with the Nintendo 64 looming right around the corner, Super Mario RPG is arguably the system’s technological pinnacle.
Here, Square and Nintendo squeeze every inch of power out of the hardware, and even if – not too long after the release of Legend of the Seven Stars – Super Mario 64 would show the world a bright new perspective into the Mushroom Kingdom, it is in Super Mario RPG that it appears in a 3-D format for the first time ever, and the results are spectacular, as the game lands on a nice balance between a signature unique artistic design and a mighty display of technology. The accompanying soundtrack, although not quite up to par due to a few tunes that can become rather repetitive as the game goes along (especially the recurring battle theme), finds a similar level of excellence in a mixture of tracks that pay homage to classic Mario songs while also bringing in a few notable creations of its own.
When it comes to its gameplay, the unique twist Super Mario RPG gives to the genre is not limited to all the jumping and the ten action mini-games (which can be replayed at any time) that are an integral part of the navigation through its scenarios. Traveling from one place to another is made rather streamlined thanks to an overworld map clearly inspired by that of Super Mario World, allowing gamers to – as soon as they walk out of an area – simply select where they want to head to next.
Truly, given Legend of the Seven Stars is pretty linear through most of the way, with only a couple of segments requiring that players backtrack, the map’s benefit does not come much into play; the feature is, nonetheless, a nice Nintendo touch. Furthermore, numerous are the steps the game takes towards giving a dash of accessibility to the traditional role-playing experience, including the elimination of random encounters, as enemy sprites appear fully integrated into the scenarios, hence making combats easily avoidable either via walking away or by doing some timely jumping; the generous well-placed save points that do not allow much progress to be lost; and a smooth difficulty curve that does away with the need to grind and greets newcomers with open arms.
The most prominent of the tricks brought in by Super Mario RPG lies, however, in the field of battle. Once skirmishes are triggered, Legend of the Seven Stars reveals what appears to be a very commonplace combat system. With a party of three, players will tackle groups of enemies by taking turns and attacking in an order determined by each character’s speed stat.
All of the five available heroes hold the same five basic actions, as they are able to attack using their standard weapon, use an item, try to run, take a defensive stance that reduces received damage, or select one among many varied special skills that consume Flower Points. The twist is that whether when attacking or defending players can increase the efficiency of the action via button presses. In the first case, depending on the move that is executed, the extra effect can be achieved in a variety of ways, including a timely press of the B button when the blow is about to land, or the mashing or holding of a specific input. Meanwhile, when gamers are on the receiving end of the attack, the reduction of the damage occurs whenever players press B and defend at the right time.
That implementation brings numerous benefits. First and foremost, it gives players something to do other than picking options from menus, therefore keeping them on their toes at all times. Secondly, it creates an extra layer of challenge, because in order to beat some of the game’s toughest bosses or survive some of its hardest battle sequences it is very important that Mario and his team are, at least, able to land perfect attacks with some consistency, an achievement that is not all that hard due to how players will be constantly using those skills. Finally, given Super Mario RPG carries a vast group of distinct enemies and – naturally – each one of them has its own set of attacks, learning the timing to defend against new moves is an engaging and challenging task that comes up through the entire quest and that plays a major role in defining which will be the winning side as the title’s combats grow harder and tighter.
That clever balance of RPG traditions and action-oriented battles speaks volumes about how Legend of the Seven Stars lives inside a dichotomy of pleasing a hardcore crowd that embraces the genre to its fullest as well as a group that, as fans of the plumber, besides likely being more inclined towards a more fast-paced kind of gameplay, are also new to role-playing titles. And instead of falling into an awkward middle-ground that does not please any of the audiences, it actually succeeds in delighting both. The starring party has a very satisfying variety of characters, with Mario finding balance between attack and defense; Peach and Mallow emerging as healers, with the latter carrying more of an offensive punch; and Bowser and Geno being mighty attackers. Meanwhile, although the game does not present many options in relation to armor, there is a nice – albeit not too expansive – room for character customization with the use of accessories that have different effects and the choosing of which group of stats will be more significantly upgraded whenever a member of the party levels up.
Consequently, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars is a game that excels in countless areas. In materializing the rather unlikely marriage between the platforming world of Super Mario and the role-playing greatness of the classics produced by Square during the nineties, it ended up creating a sub-genre of its own: a class of games where thick scripts and turn-based battles meet exploration segments that marry the walking usually done in RPGs with external elements such as action and puzzle-solving.
With that combination as its basis, the game assembles a quest that – more than any other Mario game before it – gives life to the Mushroom Kingdom while miraculously succeeding in embracing RPG fans and newcomers to the genre that are naturally attracted to games starring the popular plumber. And even if some of the role-playing quests undertaken by the character ever since have presented more alluring scripts and a wider deck of options, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars retains its position not just as a major pioneer, but as a classic due to how nowhere else in the usually fantastic sagas that were heavily inspired by it can one find such a pure balance between RPG traditions and the quirks of Mario’s universe.