RPGs are one of those video game genres that drum up endless debate. The fans of the genre are die-hard, obsessive, and some of the most committed to the medium. It’s because RPGs are designed to be demanding, grueling experiences—almost like gamers are working through their fictional quests themselves. It’s that sort of reputation that makes singling out what the best RPG is nearly impossible.
And yet, somehow, the answer humbly lies within the Super Nintendo, in a title starring Mario, of all people. Super Mario has had a long relationship with video games that's taken him all across the medium, but surprisingly, his first foray into the role-playing genre was not only a critical hit, but still widely considered to be one of the best RPGs that has ever been made. Now, over twenty years after the release of the game, the SNES title packs just as much of a punch as it originally did. So refill your Flower Points and ready those timed hits because Here Are 15 Reasons Super Mario RPG Is Still The Best RPG Of All Time.
15 It’s Squaresoft doing a Mario RPG!
The concept of a Mario RPG is a lot for gamers to wrap their heads around, especially back in 1996. However, that didn't make the prospect of putting Nintendo's biggest mascot into the hot role-playing game genre any less tantalizing. Towards the end of a console’s lifespan, it's not unusual to see experimentation going on, such as with this momentous Squaresoft and Nintendo collaboration. It's one thing to give a beloved character a genre swap, but it speaks volumes when that project is treated with the utmost respect.
Super Mario RPG wasn't just a Mario RPG; it was Squaresoft stepping up to the plate. That's like all of a sudden not only getting a Legend of Zelda film announced, but that Guillermo Del Toro is going to be the one handling it. It's just too much awesome to properly process. As a counterpoint, Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog eventually would also go the RPG route with Bioware's Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, but the finished product saw middling results. That being said, if Square said that they were interested in making a Big the Cat and Espio the Chameleon RPG, fans would likely optimistically get on board.
14 Its Mini-Games
Squaresoft usually does a good job at padding their RPGs with fun, inconsequential mini-games to help players earn special items or just delightfully waste time. Surely there are still some gamers out there that are trying to break their jump rope record in Final Fantasy IX. Square would even release games that were based entirely off of the chocobo racing mini-game from Final Fantasy, too. Well, Square truly goes above and beyond with the extra content in Super Mario RPG, with it practically feeling like each new world that's visited has a new game for players to try out. Some of these mini-games might be on the more forgettable end of the scale (like Sky Bridge, Goomba Thumping, or Land’s End Cliff Scaling), but a lot of them are flat out fun. It'll be hard to stop playing games like Mushroom Derby Racing or Beetle Mania, with Moleville Mountain Mine Cart Ride being a wonderful distraction. All of these mini-games also utilize a different skill (Melody Bay is a music maker!), making all of them feel extremely different, too.
13 Its Sense of Humor
It’s no surprise that Mario titles skew towards the lighter side of gaming, but there are also a few occasions where the series really gets to show off just how funny it’s capable of being. Super Mario RPG still hits all of the touchstone doom and gloom moments of epic world-spanning RPGs, but it doesn’t waste the opportunity to capitalize on just how silly of a protagonist Mario can be. Here, Mario is often portrayed as a hapless warrior who seems to keep getting caught up in adventure. Yes, there are stories of his Bowser beating ways, but all the proof that anyone needs regarding Mario’s identity is seeing the guy pull off a halfhearted jump. He’s that jumping guy with the moustache. Super Mario RPG’s script continues to go on with biting wit and genuine self-awareness towards both Mario and RPGs in general. The game even sneaks in cameos from Samus Aran and Link, just because it can! That’s the sort of chaotic, unpredictable sense of humor that the game brings to the table.
12 Mario Gets to Fight a Final Fantasy Boss!
Forget about Bowser. Hell, even forget about Giga Bowser. Mario has fought his fair share of heavy-hitters throughout his video gaming career, but one of the craziest battles that he's ever been involved in takes place in the dark corners of Super Mario RPG. Culex, the colossal pain from out of Final Fantasy IV ends up making a cameo in the Mario game as a well-hidden secret boss. Culex is truly a challenge that will drive gamers crazy, but for those looking to put Mario through the emotional trauma, it can be done by acquiring the fireworks in Moleville and then parlaying them for the Shiny Stone. This Stone is essentially a crystal and is what’s needed to awaken Culex in Monstro Town. It's already pretty cool to have a Mario RPG, but one where Mario and friends are actually fighting a Final Fantasy boss is just next level stuff. Funnily enough, the next time that Mario would be facing up against foes from Final Fantasy would be on the basketball court in Mario Hoops 3-on-3. Culex's absent, but it's probably because he couldn't fit into the gym shorts.
11 The New Characters That It Introduces to the Mario Universe
Nintendo has done a great job at filling the Mario universe with many memorable characters (as well as some not so memorable ones... Rose Gold Peach? Baby Daisy?) through the years. Super Mario RPG does nice work pulling from Mario's list of established friends to help him on his quest for the seven stars. That being said, the game also does a commendable job at adding new personalities to the Mario world that are some deeply creative, enjoyable characters. Mario will encounter characters such as Mallow the tadpole (take his word for it) or Geno the scarecrow-like doll. That's not even touching on other characters like Booster, Boshi, or Smithy.
While licensing issues and other legal obstacles have prohibited these new characters from returning in future Mario titles, their fan support is still deafening. Gamers have fought hard to get SMRPG mascots like Mallow or Geno to turn up in an upcoming Super Smash Bros. entry. Minimal progress has been made on the front (a Geno Mii costume, for instance), but the strong outcry for these one-time allies highlights just how popular and successful Super Mario RPG’s new characters were in the first place.
10 Its Replayability
Super Mario RPG might not be an RPG as lengthy as some of Square’s other accomplishments, but it’s certainly a longer game than most Super Mario gamers are used to. Retrieving all seven stars and taking down Smithy is no easy feat, but even after the core game of Super Mario RPG is completed, there are still a number of challenges to keep gamers busy. RPGs can often severely suffer from a hampered replayability factor. Sure, different characters or classes can be explored, but largely when the main story of an RPG is completed, that’s it. On the other hand, typical Mario platforming games are built off of replayability and are all about returning to old worlds. Super Mario RPG finds a comfortable middle ground that staffs players with plenty of extra items and weapons to locate, additional missions to stay busy with, a collection of hidden treasure chests scattered throughout the game, and extra hidden boss battles that will earn gamers great rewards. Smithy might be the game’s official final boss, but he’s hardly the toughest challenge that the game’s got to offer!
9 Its Soundtrack
Super Mario RPG might be one of the most enjoyable games on the Super Nintendo to play, but it’s also just a sheer delight to listen to. The game’s elegant, varied soundtrack is another element that helps elevate this title to a more sophisticated gaming experience. There is simply something wrong with gamers if they’re not humming or tapping to the tracks featured throughout this game. Super Mario RPG’s soundtrack is a two -person collaboration between Yoko Shimomura—the genius behind the Street Fighter II and Parasite Eve soundtracks—and Nintendo’s own Koji Kondo. Just like the synthesis between Mario and the role-playing genre turned out so smoothly, so did this joint effort between Shimomura and Kondo.
In fact, the game’s soundtrack is something that so many people got excited over that Nintendo even released an official two-disc 61-track soundtrack for the game that celebrates the many brilliant compositions that the title has to offer. The game is even thorough enough that it includes the work of Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy fame for the FFIV track that’s present during the hidden boss battle with Culex!
8 The Doors That It’s Opened for the Mario Series
The Mario series has proven itself to contain quite a bit of depth and variety when it decides that it wants to mix things up. Mario might have a robust go-karting career, plenty of experience throwing multiplayer parties, and even so much skill in the sports realm that he's been invited to the Olympics for the past several years. Mario might feel like a limitless "theme" that can be applied to any sort of game now, but back in the day he was just known for his platforming. Super Mario RPG revolutionized things for the franchise by proving that Mario could extend his reach beyond platforming and give something like RPGs a try.
Due to the game's success, Nintendo was able to go forward with not one, but two new Mario series that involve role-playing elements; the Paper Mario games (which was originally called Super Mario RPG 2) and the Mario and Luigi series for the handheld market. Neither of these popular series would be possible without Super Mario RPG proving that something different could work for the Mushroom Kingdom.
7 It’s the First Game Where You Get to Play As Bowser
Nowadays, Nintendo has done a pretty commendable job with letting their audience play with many of Mario's supporting cast of characters. There are games now being released that have Toad as their central character, so anything is possible. In spite of the franchise's current verisimilitude, back in the mid-'90s, things weren't nearly so varied. That's why it was so exciting when Super Mario RPG not only let gamers play as a bunch of new characters, but it finally let them control Mario's head antagonist, Bowser (outside of something like Super Mario Kart). Bowser's incorporation is inspired; the King of Koopas needs to make a temporary alliance with Mario in order to take down an even larger threat. Bowser and Mario delightfully butt heads throughout their quest, with Bowser's moves even involving him hurling Mario at their enemies in some cases. Players still haven't been able to control Bowser that much throughout the Mario series, but his appearance here is the gold standard.
6 It Doesn't Contain Random Battles
This might ultimately fall into the area of personal preference, but many gamers can be put off by RPGs due to their tendency to relentlessly throw battles at players. Having no control over when fighters are pushed into battle can be quite exhausting. It's for this reason that a fraction of RPGs feature non-random battles where gamers actually have a say in when they're fighting (most of the time). This gameplay decision creates a much more refreshing experience in Super Mario RPG, and one that even feels more akin to a standard Mario game. Seeing where the enemies are and then needing to avoid them with precise timing and sometimes heavy maneuvering is not that different than the usual platforming calisthenics that are expected of Mario. In the end, Mario RPG airing on the side of non-random battles cuts a lot of the headache out of RPG grinding in the best way possible.
5 It’s One of Only Seven SNES Games Use the SA-1 Chip
It’s no question that Super Mario RPG is one of the most beautiful looking games for the 16-bit Super Nintendo console. The title is clearly pushing the SNES to its limit and the results are part of the reason that this game still holds up so well in the present day. As hard as the Super Nintendo is working to produce such elegant-for-the-time graphics, the console still had to enlist a little extra help to make Super Mario RPG’s graphical goals possible. The SA-1 Chip—otherwise known as the Super Accelerator 1 Chip—allowed the system to tap into greater processing power as well as other luxuries, but the chip was only put to use in seven titles (outside of Japan). Some of the other games to feature the SA-1 Chip include Kirby Super Star and Kirby’s Dream Land 3, which also both push the SNES to the max of its graphical capabilities. Had Square had access to such technology prior to this, who knows what some of the earlier Final Fantasy entries might have ended up looking like.
4 Its Rich Story
It’s not unusual for sprawling RPGs to contain some of the most thorough, engaging stories that have ever been committed to video games. Some RPGs even cover such scope that they’ll span generations, telling a story that’s far grander than just some hero out on a journey to fight evil. Adversely, while Mario games are a lot of fun, they’re fairly thin when it comes to the story department. So when the opportunity comes to inject Mario and company with a rich, compelling narrative, it turns into an even more enjoyable experience. There’s a larger story of good versus evil present in Super Mario RPG, but the game really excels when it comes to the more personal stories of its individual characters. Super Mario RPG is able to weave intricate backstories for all of its new faces, as well as bring them satisfying resolution by the end of things. This is a game where a misfit tadpole orphan can learn that he’s actually the royalty of a cloud kingdom. All of the game’s villains are also three-dimensional foes that make every battle hold additional weight. It’s surprising how much this Mario game’s story will take gamers away.
3 Its Brisk Pace
While RPGs are praised for their huge scope, open worlds, and lengthy gameplay, some of them can be so obtuse or frustrating from the jump that players never truly get a chance to get invested in the first place. It’s not unusual for the opening mechanics of some RPGs to just be too overwhelming or archaic that the game’s deemed unworthy of digging any deeper. Super Mario RPG acts as if its intentionally trying to break this trend, moving forward with a lively tempo that never allows the game the chance to slow down. This is an RPG that while still inundating its player with tutorials, it hardly goes overboard on the matter and isn’t one to hold hands through its opening trials. Plus, the game progresses quickly through new areas and has Mario and company fighting bosses very soon into their adventure. The game hardly allows the player time to get bored before they’re thrown into battle. This is a game that starts with a Bowser boss battle after all. On top of all of that, there’s a clear sense of progress with the plot construct of the seven stars. Players always know how much is left to go!
2 It's a Mario Game That's Not About Peach Getting Kidnapped
If there’s any aspect from the Mario titles that’s in need of rejuvenation, it’s the whole “princess in another castle” trope that Mario’s had to put up with for decades now. Mario titles might continue to reinvent platforming with each passing title, but Bowser’s motivation of running away with Princess Peach has largely remained unchanged since the series’ debut. That’s why it’s so exciting that Super Mario RPG actually does something different to the formula. Admittedly, this game does still require Mario to rescue Princess Peach, but it cleverly subverts the tired trope and actually turns Peach into a self-actualized party member of her own. Gamers can even play as Peach and kick bad guy butt accordingly! The larger evil scheme at hand here involves Smithy wanting to rob the seven stars of their wish-granting abilities and monopolize their energy for himself. It’s not that different from the usual “Bad Guy Wants Unlimited Power” story angle, but it at least inspires some unlikely characters needing to work together against this larger threat. Where else would gamers learn that Peach can really swing a frying pan?
1 It's Made By Squaresoft In Their Prime
The original impetus to bring Squaresoft and Nintendo together on a Mario RPG was that Square’s RPGs sold phenomenally in Japan, but struggled overseas. Mario was going to be the equalizer. It’d be one thing if Square were cutting their teeth on the RPG genre when developing Super Mario RPG. Instead, the game benefited from the company being in its prime.
In the mid-‘90s Squaresoft had a nearly flawless reputation, and they set their focus on Super Mario RPG while they were experiencing a considerable hot streak. Square had released the pivotal title Chrono Trigger a year before Super Mario RPG’s release, with Final Fantasy VII coming out less than a year after. Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII are seen as the peak of Square’s performance in some circles, so the fact that Super Mario RPG would learn from the lessons of those titles while also help shape them is pretty significant. People might think that part of the reason that Super Mario RPG was so good was simply because of the curious turn for Mario, but it was really because Square was in the middle of learning how to perfect the RPG genre.
But how does Super Mario RPG resonate for you? Is it an SNES RPG experience so sweet that you’d swear you’re drinking Kero Kero Cola with a side of Maple Syrup? Or is it an experiment grimmer than Belome’s sewers? Grab a Pick Me Up and let your voices be heard in the comments below!