The History of Super Mario RPG | Gaming Historian
In 1996, North America was introduced to
a new Mario game on the Super Nintendo.
But it wasn’t just any Mario game.
It was a role-playing game.
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.
It seemed like an odd idea.
Mario in an RPG setting?
Mario had been in a lot of different genres.
Puzzle games, sports, kart racers, edutainment.
But an RPG might have been
the last genre on people’s minds
when it came to the Italian plumber.
But Super Mario RPG was a hit,
and it’s considered not only one
of the best Super Nintendo games,
but also one of the best RPGs ever made.
In Business Insider’s list of
the top 10 Super Mario games,
Super Mario RPG is ranked #9.
IGN placed it at #10 on it’s Top
100 Super Nintendo Games list.
Notable JRPG fan and Kotaku writer Jason Schreier
lists the game as one of his “JRPGs You Must Play.”
Super Mario RPG was the result of Square and Nintendo
collaborating during their prime.
Together, they created something very special.
Super Mario RPG is filled with memorable characters,
a unique battle system,
fun side quests,
and unforgettable moments.
Let’s take a look at this classic title
and the impact it left on gamers and the industry.
Video game developer Square was known
for making high quality role-playing games,
most notably their Final Fantasy series.
Electronic Gaming Monthly
called them “the master of RPGs.”
Square’s games sold well in Japan
and were a hit with critics.
However, sales in the Western market
didn’t meet expectations.
In late 1992, following disappointing sales
of Final Fantasy II in North America,
Square created a simplified
RPG for western audiences
with Final Fantasy Mystic Quest.
But people didn’t bite.
The game only sold about 400,000 copies.
Two years later, Final Fantasy VI,
or Final Fantasy III in North America,
sold more than 2.5 million units
in Japan within a few months,
making it their best selling
game of all time up to that point.
Critics heaped praise on the game,
calling it “the greatest RPG of all time”
and “a must-own for Super Nintendo fans.”
But once again, sales in the Western
market did not meet expectations.
Square needed to break through in the West.
It was a challenge they
couldn’t conquer on their own.
So they sought the help of the most
popular video game character of all time.
While Square struggled in the Western market,
Nintendo was riding high.
Their Super Nintendo console was
beginning to outsell the rival Sega Genesis.
Children recognized their flagship mascot, Mario,
more often than Mickey Mouse.
Super Mario World sold more than 20 million units.
Even spinoff games like
Super Mario Kart were a huge success,
selling over 8 million copies.
Mario seemed invincible.
Nintendo’s most well-known
game designer, and Mario’s creator,
was eager to try the Italian
plumber in other genres,
So in 1994, when Square approached Nintendo
about collaborating on a new game,
Miyamoto was interested.
He was a fan of the company and their work.
During the pitch meeting at Square headquarters,
Square presented Miyamoto and his staff
with a picture of a caped Mario
holding a sword atop a horse.
It made sense, considering the source.
Most of Square’s role-playing games
had a medieval fantasy setting.
But Miyamoto gave them a puzzled
look and said, “That’s not right.”
He mentioned Mario might have
a hammer, but not a sword.
The two companies had intense
discussions about the use of characters,
story and setting.
Eventually, they agreed to make the game,
their first collaborative project with each other.
Square began development in the Summer of 1994.
Nintendo pitched in with creative consulting
to ensure the game had the Nintendo and Mario flair.
Director duties were given to
Square employees Yoshihiko Maekawa
and Chihiro Fujioka.
Fujioka previously worked on
Final Fantasy Mystic Quest,
Squares first attempt to appeal to Western audiences.
He recalled the relationship
with Nintendo as being, quote,
“very close and favorable.”
Shigeru Miyamoto would
come in often to meet and talk,
as well as provide suggestions on gameplay .
Fujioka said that Miyamoto had two
main points of advice in his consulting.
One was to, quote, “Keep an eye on
handling Mario’s entry into the RPG world
without destroying the Mario universe.”
The other was to make the game fun.
At first, Super Mario RPG looked
like a traditional Square RPG,
a top-down view with 2D sprites.
Square perfected this look,
pushing the limitations of what the
Super Nintendo could do with the perspective.
But after seeing Rare and
Nintendo’s Donkey Kong Country,
Square was eager to try something new:
They shifted from the 2D perspective
to an isometric perspective.
This required some extra hardware power to work,
so Nintendo suggested they
integrate the SA1 chip into the game.
The SA1 chip had four times the processing
power of the Super Nintendo’s CPU
and faster RAM.
This allowed quicker calculations to render the graphics
and show more characters on-screen.
Square developed the look using the
same Silicon Graphics workstations
that Rare used to make Donkey Kong Country.
By the Summer of 1995,
Square had a working prototype,
but they couldn’t decide whether to
give Mario weapons and magic attacks
or his signature hammer and jump moves.
According to director Chihero Fujioka,
he and Miyamoto confirmed their
decision at the 1995 V Jump Festival,
where they unveiled the game
to the public for the first time.
Fujioka asked the audience to
applaud for the option they liked best:
Mario fighting with swords and magic
or hammers and jumps.
The audience overwhelmingly chose the latter.
With the game nearing completion,
a beta build arrived at the Nintendo
of America offices in late 1995.
It took the staff by surprise.
A few thought it was a silly idea
and were surprised by the RPG battle system menus.
In the November 1995 issue of Nintendo Power,
one writer commented,
When it came time to translate the game for the West,
notable Square localizer Ted Woolsey,
known for his translations of
Final Fantasy VI and Secret of Mana,
got the job.
Since their offices were down
the street from each other,
Nintendo’s product analysis team
periodically met with Woolsey
to make corrections and ensure the game
had that signature Nintendo personality.
In 1996 the world finally got to play
what would become a classic
game for the Super Nintendo:
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.
It was released on March 9, 1996 in Japan
and May 13, 1996 in North America.
In Japan, the game came with
a coupon to get ¥4,000 off,
or about $37 off,
the purchase of a Super Famicom system.
This was perhaps an effort by Nintendo
to sell through back-stock of consoles
before the release of the Nintendo 64.
Unfortunately, Europe would not
see the game until years later.
Nintendo software analyst Jim Wornell
said that the European release
was nixed for several reasons:
the time it would take to do another translation,
the added cost of the SA1 chip
and low projected sales all factored into the decision.
Super Mario RPG was released just
four months before the Nintendo 64,
at the height of the Super Nintendo’s popularity.
For many gamers, including myself,
it was a great holdover until the Nintendo 64.
Plus, it was new Mario game.
We had to get our hands on it.
However, I don’t think anyone anticipated
just how popular and impactful it would become.
Super Mario RPG begins just
like every other Mario game.
Princess Toadstool has been kidnapped by Bowser,
and you have to rescue her.
But during the fight between Mario and Bowser,
a giant sword falls out of the sky
and crashes into Bowser’s castle,
scattering everyone into different directions.
Mario soon learns that this is
the work of the Smithy gang,
who have not only taken over the world,
but destroyed Star Road
which helps grant people’s wishes.
Mario and the gang must recover seven star pieces
to rebuild Star Road and defeat Smithy.
Along the way, Mario meets new
characters who join his party.
There’s Mallow, a cloud who
seems to think he is a tadpole.
A star spirit who takes the
form of a doll, known as Geno.
Even Princess Toadstool and Bowser join your party.
There’s also a ton of memorable
that you will meet along the way.
One of my favorite parts of Super Mario RPG
has always been the characters and their interactions.
Some of the lines are great,
and the character expressions are very impressive
for a 16-bit tilte.
It’s a very funny game.
According to director Chihiro Fujioka,
many of the staff members who worked on the game
were fans of standup comedy.
It’s also a gorgeous game.
There is no doubt that Super Mario RPG
is one of the best-looking
games on the Super Nintendo.
Square was definitely stepping
out of their comfort zone,
but it paid off.
Everything is bright and colorful,
and the isometric view works
well without any slowdown.
Gameplay is a mix of traditional RPG and action RPG.
There’s menus, items, equipment, hit points,
experience, battle commands, etc.,
all staples of a traditional
Japanese role-playing game.
But the battle system incorporates a timing mechanic
when attacking and defending.
If you time it right, you can hit
the A button while attacking
to deal extra damage,
or hit the B button while
defending to reduce damage.
According to director Yoshihiko Maekawa,
this unique battle system was inspired
by a Japanese children’s toy.
Square also incorporated
platforming into the game because…
what’s a Mario game without some platforming?
There are hidden treasure chests, coins to collect,
and obstacles that Mario must
traverse by running and jumping.
Instead of random battles, enemies appear on-screen.
There are also minigames
scattered throughout the world.
Yoshi races, a mine cart maze,
running on barrels down a river,
collecting coins in a waterfall,
and many more.
The soundtrack, a combination of remixed
Mario tunes and original compositions,
was composed by Yoko Shimomura.
She had previously worked for Capcom,
where she composed the soundtrack to
the popular Street Fighter II arcade game.
When she wanted to pursue more classical style music,
she left Capcom for Square.
Shimormua considers Super Mario RPG
a turning point in her career.
Nintendo and Square did a great job
ensuring the player felt like
they were in the Mario universe.
Everything you would expect is here.
Goombas, Toad, flowers, mushrooms,
warp pipes and Hammer Brothers.
Nintendo even threw in a few
Easter eggs throughout the game.
Square threw in a few as well,
most notably Culex,
an optional boss that wouldn’t be out of place
in a Final Fantasy game.
It’s amazing what Square and Nintendo were able to fit
in this whopping 32 megabit cartridge.
Upon its release, Super Mario RPG:
Legend of the Seven Stars
received rave reviews.
GamePro magazine gave it a
perfect score, commenting,
“Once you pick this one up, you’re hooked!”
Electronic Gaming Monthly was similarly impressed,
calling it “a masterpiece.”
Super Mario RPG combines the role-playing elements
of Final Fantasy with the world of Mario flawlessly.
The game was a commercial success as well.
More than 2 million units were sold
at a retail price of $75.
Square was ecstatic about the numbers.
Yusuke Hirata, one of the producers,
said that the series would likely continue
on Nintendo’s upcoming
console, the Nintendo 64.
However, those hopes were dashed
when Nintendo and Square had a falling out.
Due to Nintendo’s insistence on
sticking with cartridge-based media,
Square shifted its focus to
the CD-based Sony PlayStation
for more artistic freedom.
This essentially eliminated
any hope for a true sequel.
Although Square was out of the picture,
Nintendo still went forward with the idea.
They teamed up with Intelligent Systems
and worked on a sequel,
Super Mario RPG 2.
Possibly due to legal issues with Square,
they renamed the game Paper Mario.
Released on the Nintendo 64,
the game borrowed several
elements from Super Mario RPG,
mainly the action timing-based battle system
and the humorous dialogue and plot.
But Nintendo was able to make
the game stand out on its own
with its unique paper book visual style.
It became its own popular franchise
and is still around today.
But believe it or not, there is
another Mario RPG-inspired game
in the form of the Mario & Luigi series.
Once again, the game series borrows
the action timing-based battle system,
as well as the humor.
The handheld series of games
was developed by AlphaDream,
a company with many former Square employees.
One of them is Chihiro Fujioka,
the director of Super Mario RPG.
Music for the series is composed by
Super Mario RPG composer, Yoko Shimomura.
Even with two spiritual successors,
fans still clamor for a true
sequel to Super Mario RPG.
However, Square Enix holds
a lot of the rights to the game,
so it would take some licensing and legal hurdles
to make something happen.
There are a few references to the game in other titles.
Geno makes an appearance in
Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga,
and as a Mii Fighter costume in Super Smash Bros.
But that’s about it.
In 2008, Europeans were finally able to play the game
when Nintendo released Super Mario RPG
on the Virtual Console.
Super Mario RPG left quite an impact.
For many fans of the Mario series,
it was their introduction to the RPG,
and it made them permanent fans of the genre.
It was also Square’s big break in the Western market.
Super Mario RPG outsold
all of their previous releases
on the Super Nintendo,
and helped them see what works
and what doesn’t in the West.
Super Mario RPG is a classic.
If you don’t already have it on Super Nintendo,
it’s readily available on Nintendo’s
Virtual Console service.
We may never see a true sequel to the game.
it’s best to go out on top.
That’s all for this episode
of “The Gaming Historian.”
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