Super Mario RPG Remake Revives the Best Gateway RPG Ever

Decades after its release, Super Mario RPG remains one of the best ways to get someone to fall in love with RPGs.

Super Mario RPG Remake
Photo: Nintendo

Nintendo just shocked everyone by announcing that a Super Mario RPG remake will release on November 17 for Nintendo Switch. Mind you, it’s not that such a remake hasn’t been on many fans’ minds in recent…decades. It’s just that so many people have spent so long asking for that remake that most of us assumed that it was never going to happen.

First released in 1996, Super Mario RPG was arguably one of the first “dream” games. Although, to be honest, few could have possibly dreamed of a Super Mario game developed by Square: a company that had just released several of the best RPGs ever made in the span of just a few years. Fewer still could have imagined that such a game would represent the absolute best of Square and Super Mario while still feeling like its own thing.

Yet, for as mythical as Super Mario RPG has become, those who have never played it before and intend to do so later this year may be surprised to find that it’s actually a relatively simple game in many ways. At the very least, it’s much more accessible than most of the other Square RPGs of that era. While words like “accessible” and “simple” are sometimes delivered with venom in modern gaming culture, that’s not the case here. In fact, Super Mario RPG‘s greatest quality may be how it caters to those looking for a reason to love the RPG genre.

Console JRPGs of the SNES era may not have been as daunting as their CRPG counterparts, but they were still notoriously intimidating for many. At a time when platformers and arcade-like titles still dominated the scene, the comparatively deep mechanics featured in games like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger were often a turn-off. Imagine having no experience with RPGs and renting a game like Final Fantasy 6. Seemingly simple concepts like equipment, stats, and basic turn-based strategies might as well have been an alien language. Some found pleasure in getting lost in such adventures and figuring things out. However, it was common for many young gamers to bounce off a title that wasn’t meant to be understood right away, especially if their time with that game was relatively limited.

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Right from the start, Super Mario RPG emphasizes the two major qualities that rescue it from the clutches of that intimidation factor: action and humor.

When people talk about Super Mario RPG‘s action, they’re typically referring to its combat system, and rightfully so. Super Mario RPG‘s revolutionary turn-based combat system is designed around the idea that nearly every action can be enhanced by a well-timed button press. Press a button at the perfect point during an attack, and you’ll deal bonus damage or trigger a unique effect. Press a button right when an enemy attack is about to land, and you’ll mitigate all (or most) of the damage. It sounds simple now given how many other games utilize similar concepts, but that seemingly simple concept did so much for a genre still trying to convert curious participants into fans.

Never before had a JRPG been so conscious of the idea that quite a few people were still turned off by typical JRPG turn-based battles. Super Mario RPG‘s timing-based inputs not only let you feel like an active participant in every action you chose, but it ensured that those actions were no longer merely a reflection of stats, gear, and other mechanics you may not fully understand yet or even care about.

Super Mario RPG’s “action” isn’t limited to its combat sequences, though. Moments between battles are filled with minigames, platforming sequences, and other special gameplay sections designed to keep you firmly in control and engaged with more than just the power level of your characters. This may sound sacrilegious, but the ways that Super Mario RPG‘s world map sections emphasize everything but traditional JRPG gameplay is a trick that too few genre titles have bothered to learn since.

The same is true of Super Mario RPG‘s humor. In the same ways that good comedy can make dramatic moments land that much harder, Super Mario RPG shows how comedy can help fuel a typical slow-burn JRPG narrative. Super Mario RPG‘s sense of humor and generally lighthearted nature successfully invest you in the game’s plot, characters, and world without forcing the grander story elements to reveal themselves too quickly. Though that sense of humor has since become a staple of the Super Mario role-playing games that followed, it remains shockingly absent in otherwise great RPGs that treat their narratives as driving forces yet put too much faith in the idea that people will stick around until they get good “eventually.”

In its own ways, though, Super Mario RPG does grow into a much better game than it initially appears to be. In fact, that’s the most impressive thing about the experience. It’s not an RPG for beginners; it’s an RPG for everyone.

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Square’s previous attempt at making a much more accessible RPG (1992’s Final Fantasy Mystic Quest) revealed the importance of not diluting the genre to the point that it becomes something else entirely. That game held your hand through so many JRPG concepts that it pretty much played itself. Yes, that approach is accommodating to those who are otherwise intimidated by RPGs, but it fails to show them why they should bother to care about RPGs in the first place.

Comparatively, Super Mario RPG remains a classic Square RPG in the ways that matter most. Leveling up characters feels satisfying, hunting down their best gear offers an adventure game-like thrill, and there’s even a secret super challenging boss fight for the genre masochists out there. The same reasons you could justify putting dozens of hours into a game like Final Fantasy 6, Earthbound, or Chrono Trigger are the same reasons you’ll feel compelled to spend significantly less time with Super Mario RPG. The payoff may not be quite as great, but it always feels proportional to what the game asks you to invest in it.

I’m as guilty as any RPG fan when it comes to forgetting that RPGs remain a significant hurdle for many gamers. I’ll tell myself that those gamers will love certain RPGs if they give them a chance. Maybe they will, but it’s easy to forget that being forced to learn to love something is what chases many people away from such games in the first place.

If nothing else, Super Mario RPG is a good time. It emphasizes pure fun in ways that even some of the most beloved RPGs do not, and it does it without ever significantly compromising the things that make the genre so special. It remains one of the very best ways to get someone to fall in love with RPGs as well as one of the best ways to remind someone why they fell in love with RPGs in the first place. With any luck, this remake will deliver on its potential and allow a new generation of gamers to see why gateway games are an often overlooked and disrespected part of video game history.