A Crossover of Iconic Characters and RPG Mechanics: Celebrating Super Mario RPG
When mash-ups endeavor to become something bigger than simple art, it will often go one of two ways. Either things fit together and complement one another or they don’t. Even then, to go about making a mash-up idea into an enjoyable product is a much more arduous process than simply slapping one enjoyable brand together with another. It’s certainly been the source of both good and, at best, mediocre products over the last few decades. That said, who would have thought that back in 1996 around this time, one of the biggest success stories of one of these mash-ups would have come from applying the Final Fantasy RPG formula to the Super Mario universe?
Back in the ‘90s, it’s not as though Square and Nintendo were strange bedfellows. Square had enjoyed release of some quality products on Nintendo systems. The Final Fantasy series had pulled Square back from the brink of bankruptcy and the company was regularly fielding other great RPGs. Unfortunately, while games like Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger did well in Japan, their initial sales numbers in North America left something to be desired. Square needed some way to capture the heart of American audiences from launch on a product. Luckily, Mario creator and producer Shigeru Miyamoto was interested in creating an RPG with the beloved platforming plumber. Square and Nintendo were able to come together in successful discussion and development of Super Mario RPG began.
Super Mario RPG starts out as most Mario games do. The dastardly Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach and it’s up to Mario to go save her. However, it isn’t long before players find themselves knee-deep in the conventions of popular Square RPGs. Things go awry when a mechanical madman known as Smithy arrives from another dimension on the giant sword Exor. Smithy commandeers Bowser’s Castle, shatters the Star Road, removing the power of wishes from the Mushroom Kingdom, and fills the world with his malevolent machines in hopes of becoming its new ruler. Mario, his friends, and even Bowser must turn their attention towards recovering star fragments to repair the Star Road and defeat Smithy.
The game’s story elements, combat, inventory and item systems were all adapted heavily from iconic Final Fantasy systems. Each character hosts their own specialty and can be equipped with different items and accessories to boost their effectiveness. As the characters travel the Mushroom Kingdom, they can find and buy new gear or get it from defeating enemies. Speaking of enemies, each of the enemies is represented by an actual character wandering around in the world. Outside of set battles, Mario could run into these characters to initiate battle or avoid them altogether, circumventing needless hours of random enemy encounters that plagued other JRPGs. Furthermore, attacks and some magic could be strengthened with the timely pressing of a button, making combat just a bit more engaging than simply selecting attacks and magic.
Super Mario RPG was not without a healthy dose of Super Mario influence in its gameplay either. Mario is capable of jumping as usual and this was used in world design to create puzzles and instances of light platforming in order to progress through the game. The game also included blocks which Mario could jump into and get little bonuses from, as well as secret blocks which would contain special rewards if found. Each of the conventional Mario World characters made their way over as well. From Goombas, Shy Guys and Koopa Troopas to Yoshi and the Toads, each character translated over to the RPG format with most of their usual characteristics intact.
Super Mario RPG was a strange instance in which Nintendo and Square attempted to capture the iconic charm of Mario and his world within the confines of a Square-styled system. In a time when crossovers of this kind were relatively unheard of in video games, it was a risk well worth it. It’s not the hardest or deepest RPG by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a relative success that would lead to future endeavors such as the enjoyable Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi series of games. Moreover, it was interesting to see Mario’s world invaded by story elements that easily belonged in a Square RPG and have Mario and Bowser, bitter enemies as they are, battle against a common foe. For all this and more, Super Mario RPG was a mash-up well ahead of its time.