Super Mario RPG
“Super Mario RPG isn’t necessarily an improvement over the 1996 version, but it’s at least a more approachable experience for kids.”
- Same great base game
- Delightful new cinematics
- Excellent music
- More approachable combat
- Lack of new voices sticks out
- Archaic platforming
- Easy, to a fault
Video game box art can tell a story. Compare the Super Nintendo package for Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars with the Nintendo Switch case for its new remake. The former bears an iconic image, with Mario, Bowser, and Peach standing tall against a dreary castle. It’s a moody image that sets players up for a more heroic, mature Mario adventure. The box art for Switch’s Super Mario RPG paints a very different picture. Gone is the menacing castle with a sword pierced through it. Darkness turns to light as the story’s heroes, shown in their colorful cartoon makeover forms, stand against a flat white background.
While you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, the change in imagery does properly set the stage for what’s inside Nintendo’s new remake. Super Mario RPG is a much friendlier version of the 1996 cult classic, as if to more easily introduce a younger generation to it without freaking them out too much. The visuals are brighter, the timing-based combat is more foolproof, and even its hardest difficulty setting is a breezy cakewalk. It’s an oddball cult classic lightly reworked into a modern kid’s game, but a bit of the original’s personality is lost in the process.
There’s a blank white space where a proud castle once stood.
Super Mario RPG may look and sound new, but there’s a 1:1 remake of the 1996 classic sitting under its shiny hood. What starts as another basic battle against Bowser quickly takes a turn as an enormous sword pierces through the reptile’s castle. With a creepy new threat looming, Mario sets out on a kingdom-trotting adventure to collect seven star pieces, join up with new allies, and defeat the nefarious Smithy. It’s as grand and whimsical as a good Disney movie, and it still feels as creative as ever in 2023.
That’s a credit to SquareSoft’s original vision for the turn-based RPG, which took some wildly bold swings for the Mario series at the time. The third-party studio took a lot of creative liberties in imagining what Mario’s world looked like outside of the confines of the 2D Mushroom Kingdom landscapes players were used to. That gave birth to memorable locations like Star Hill, and brought us fan favorite characters like Geno. The remake faithfully upholds every decision. From Yoshi racing on Yo’ster Isle to a beanstalk-scaling trip to the clouds, not a second of the original’s lean story is lost.
Any tweaks it does make only enhance the classic rather than rewrite its history. New animated cutscenes bring the original release’s ambitious, but technically limited story sequences to their logical cartoon conclusions, giving extra life to one of Mario’s most eclectic ensembles. When I first meet Mallow, it’s in an endearing slapstick sequence that fully realizes the puffy lad as a clumsy cutie. Geno’s transformation from doll to real boy is especially magical here, turning a simple SNES scene into something pulled right out of Pinocchio.
Super Mario RPG stands as an important reminder that outside-the-box thinking can produce some of our most timeless works.
It’s an especially fitting moment to revisit this story and see the parts that still make it an enduring classic. The remake is launching right behind Super Mario Bros. Wonder, an excellent evolution for the classic series that pairs nostalgic 2D platforming with a vibrant creative refresh that makes the series feel brand new again. The original Super Mario RPG had a similar impact in the 1090s, placing characters fans knew and loved into an entirely foreign experience. Like Wonder is poised to do, it opened a world of possibilities for the series that would lead to unforgettable adventures like Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door and Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story.
If nothing else, the 2023 version of Super Mario RPG stands as an important reminder that outside-the-box thinking can produce some of our most timeless works.
While the core adventure is unimpeachable, it’s the new version’s inconsistent refreshes that’ll leave fans debating if the Switch release is an improvement. Some of its shake-ups are masterfully handled. For instance, the newly rerecorded soundtrack brings the Super Nintendo compositions to life with lush orchestration that does them justice. A track like the brassy And That Makes Me Booster! gets a grandiose upgrade here that wouldn’t feel out of place in a jazzy movie score. A toggle that lets players switch between the old and new music only emphasizes how impressive the recordings are while still preserving the original tunes.
The 2023 version is unmistakably a Nintendo product.
The visual overhaul, on the other hand, brings a bit of tension. The remake does away with the SNES version’s chunky pixels and dark color palette in favor of smooth cartoon visuals that bring the Switch game in line with modern Mario releases. It’s still a unique style that keeps the original art direction in mind, with miniature characters exploring diorama-like spaces like toys on a playset, but it’s a major tonal shift from the original. The distinct moodiness is paved over in favor of lighter, Disney-esque visuals that soften creepy boss designs like the metallic Yaridovich.
It’s not an inherently negative shift, as the Switch version enhances the whimsy inherent in the SNES adventure to create a more palatable family game. Classic minigames like a coin-collecting trip down the Midas River turn into full-on Disneyland rides, as Mario snakes around colorfully lit rivers like he’s sailing through It’s a Small World. It’s just a more homogenized look that grinds down the SNES version’s memorable warts — and its attitude in the process. The 1996 release looked and felt like a SquareSoft production; the 2023 version is unmistakably a Nintendo product.
That stylistic change will be one for fans to debate outside of the adventure, but the visual overhaul creates some tension on-screen too. Though Super Mario RPG looks the part of a full-on remake, that’s not entirely the case. It’s much closer to an HD remaster, barely altering the aged game beneath the smooth art. That becomes immediately apparent when characters pantomime lines in cutscenes, as the Switch release doesn’t include fresh vocalizations. Mario doesn’t even get a “wahoo” in. That works for the limited Super Nintendo release, but it feels oddly empty here.
The modern look makes other aged parts of the underlying game stick out more than usual, too. The original release included some stiff platforming sections due to the SNES controller’s D-pad. Those haven’t been adjusted much in the remake — they still feel rigid and unforgiving even with a joystick. It’s hard to gauge distance when hopping between beanstalks or bouncing off the backs of paratroopas to climb a mountain. Moments like that can leave the adventure feeling a bit awkward, like watching a colorized version of a black-and-white film. The imperfections only become brighter.
The most significant change here comes in the form of combat tweaks. Like the original, Super Mario RPG utilizes an engaging battle system where players can boost attacks or reduce incoming damage with precise timing. It’s a more active approach to turn-based combat that encourages players to learn the nuances of each weapon they equip and enemy they face. The remake makes that idea even more user-friendly by clearly signposting the correct timing of every action with an exclamation point. It still requires split-second reaction times, but it makes the system feel more forgiving without scrapping it.
Nailing that timing is more tangibly rewarding too. Perfect actions form combos that give Mario and his companions stat buffs while the chain is still running. They also build up a brand new special gauge, which activates a flashy triple attack based on what three party members are currently out (if party members are downed, the move becomes a handy Toad assist instead). Special abilities come with their own exciting, animated cinematics that make them feel as special as a Final Fantasy limit break.
All of those changes are great additions that make the combat loop feel less obtuse, but they do come with side effects. Every tweak makes the adventure just a little bit easier — and the base game’s difficulty seemingly wasn’t rebalanced much to match up. Boss fights like the Axem Rangers that once posed a challenge are simple now. My only Game Overs came in the earliest hours of my adventures when I only had two party members. Otherwise, I found myself blowing through bosses that once gave me trouble in mere minutes.
The ease of play trivializes other systems, too. There’s no need to use elemental attack items, as any boss can be easily taken down with standard attacks. The classic “Where’s Yoshi?” minigame, which occasionally lets players gamble for double experience or coins, is a significantly easier guessing game. I never failed to win it during my entire playthrough, which turns the system from a tense gamble to a tedious bonus. My inventory was overflowing with healing items, as my health and magic points were routinely refreshed on their own between big encounters. It was such a cakewalk that I had to double-check if I’d accidentally enabled the easier Breezy mode.
I hesitate to call Super Mario RPG an improvement over the 1996 version.
If the cartoon overhaul didn’t already make it clear, the lack of difficulty solidifies the remake’s mission statement: making a cult classic family friendly. As a remake, it’s comparable to Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, with their cute chibi visuals and simple battles. It’s an entirely rational change, especially as the series is welcoming in more young fans than ever thanks to The Super Mario Bros. Movie. The Switch release doubles as both a charming cartoon and an approachable gateway into this genre. This will likely be a lot of kids’ first RPG and I can’t think of a friendlier introduction.
While I appreciate that, I hesitate to call Super Mario RPG an improvement over the 1996 version. It’s still the same whimsical adventure that I’ll never tire of playing, but it loses a bit of what made the original special amid a stack of tweaks that go both too far and not far enough. I imagine that a lot of players will stick to the original on future replays, opting to soak in its dense pixels and dark landscapes. I can still see those images clearly when I close my eyes, that mysterious box art beckoning me back to my Super Nintendo. The Switch remake is a safe way to visit that ominous world in broad daylight, but I yearn to return to those blackened skies over a sword-pierced castle.