Tuesday, August 2, 2016

My Videogame Club- Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

File:Super Mario RPG Box.png
By: Patrick Hawes-DeFrias
Each week, I meet up with a group of friends to play a game. Sometimes it’s just once a week, sometimes more if our time permits. We continue to meet up until the game is completed, at which point we discuss our thoughts on the game, and then decide what the next game will be.
Our criteria for what we play is very simple- in fact, there’s only 2 requirements that a game needs for it to be considered:
  1. The game must have a narrative structure of some kind. We like games that have a plot, or at least a semblance of one that we can fill in with our imaginations later. For example- Journey (PS3/PS4) doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense. Nobody talks, and there are only a handful of characters. But, there’s a logical beginning, middle, and end, and upon reaching the end, the game is complete, and additionally, what little plot there is contains just enough detail for the player to get an idea of what could be happening.
  2. At least one of us must NOT have finished the game before, ever. In this way, we ensure that no matter what game we play, at least one person gets to see the full experience of the game for the first time. This is the goal- to get new gaming experiences. This means we have a fairly broad range of games we play- Retro games, Indie games, new releases, even the occasional Romhack/Fangame.
Whenever my group finishes a game, I’ll post some of my thoughts of the game here. But without further ado, let’s jump right into Super Mario RPG!
(SPOILERS may apply, stop reading if you intend to ever play this game.)
Right off the bat I liked how much the game feels like a Mario game. The game looks like… well, if you put a Mario game in an isometric perspective. The colors are generally basic, but very vibrant, and the sound design is great. Every sound effect could easily fit right in from Super Mario World. In fact, I’m pretty sure at least a few of them did. Yeah, there’s a bit of borrowing going on here, but that adds to the game’s identity as a Mario game. Speaking of sound, I really enjoyed the game’s soundtrack. In fact, I’m listening to it as I’m writing this right now! It’s got quite a bit of instrumentation to it, but other than a few specific tracks (I’ll get to them later) they all feel very “Nintendo”. In fact, on the surface it’s pretty hard to tell that Square Enix (still Squaresoft at the time) developed it.
That changes the second a battle starts up, however. With how logical and well-designed the combat is, it’s easy to tell that a developer that was well-versed in the art of making a Roleplaying Game was behind it. Especially with how simple it is. What do I mean? Well, as I said earlier, this game seems to be an intro to RPG’s, and RPG 101 as it were. That’s easy to see with the decision to make it a Mario game, of course- anyone with at least tertiary knowledge about gaming knows who Mario is, and having the player play the role of a familiar character makes it easy to get into the game. But it goes beyond that- as an introductory game to the genre, it’s important that it be simple to play without being boring. They couldn’t have too many status effects in combat, and characters couldn’t have very big move pools, or else new players might get confused and frustrated. Every character needed to be simple to play, and have a very specific role in fights. But these modifications to the Final Fantasy formula on their own would make for a fairly boring game. So what did Squaresoft do? They pioneered the “action command” style of turned-based RPG’s, a method that continued throughout nearly every single Mario-based Roleplaying game ever since, including the Paper Mario games and the Mario and Luigi games. By requiring the player to use good timing to block, do more damage, etc. drives player engagement, makes it more “gamey”. In fact, other than straight-up Action RPG’s, like Kingdom Hearts or recent offerings from Bethesda, I like this form of RPG combat the most.
Speaking of Paper Mario, as well as Mario and Luigi, it’s clear that this game is the progenitor of all those games in ways beyond combat. The writing and characterization is particularly remarkable in this regard. The humor, the fact that Mario is a silent protagonist, how recurring characters such as Peach and Bowser act, all of that can be traced back to this game.
And on the subject of characters, we come to my favorite character in the game- Bowser. Bowser in these Roleplaying Mario games continues to be one of my favorite characters. He’s this big tough guy, who is always scheming, but is a bit of a bumbler. He is careful about his image as an evil king, and isn’t nearly as dumb as you might think. The best example of this comes from this very game, when the party confronts some of the main villain’s underlings, and Bowser jumps out to intimidate the henchmen. They proceed to ignore Bowser, saying something along the lines of “You’ll never reach the boss, Mario!” This leaves Bowser emotionally distraught. After the battle, I kid you not, Bowser busts out a haiku.
Like the moon over
The day, my genius and brawn
Are lost on these fools
After this, Mario consoles him by patting him on the back. That’s amazing.
So what else did I like and find interesting about the game? Lots of small things, really, like the plot. Now you may be wondering, how can the plot be a small point in an RPG? Well, keep in mind- this is Super MARIO RPG. The Mario franchise has never really been well-known for a gripping storyline (How many times has Peach been kidnapped?). And of course, Square wanted to keep things simple, so no grand overarching plots spanning an entire world, whole civilizations to interact with, etc. like a Final Fantasy game. The plot itself is ridiculous, involving a gang of sentient weapons invading the Mushroom Kingdom by impaling a giant talking sword into Bowser’s castle, and the stars send an emissary, who possesses a toy called Geno to serve as a body, down to collect the fragments of the star road because if the road isn’t repaired then wishes will never come true again, and I’ve already lost you haven’t I? This plot is an excuse to go through a bunch of strange, vibrant locations and meet a bunch of wacky characters. But what characters there are! There’s the aforementioned Geno, whose mannerisms and speech make me imagine him sounding like Clint Eastwood despite the fact that he’s basically a puppet whose hands turn into popguns. Then there’s Malo who’s secretly the prince of the clouds, but is really dumb and causes a rainstorm whenever he cries. There’s a sentient longbow called Bowyer who is insane and has googly eyes, commanding a platoon of googly-eyed arrows, and a goomba you meet in the latter half of the game who, somehow, has started up his own convenience store and begun a family in the week or so since he left Bowser’s army in the beginning of the game. If you can’t get engrossed in a world with a cast like that, I have no idea what to tell you.
Beyond the plot and characters, the game’s full of fun little moments. At one point Mario turns into his 8-bit self, and Birdo from Mario 2 shows up for no reason. All the points where Mario explains what’s going on, through a combination of pantomime and shapeshifting, are fun, and help to get past the ‘ol “fade to black… and now you know everything” trope present in many games. There’s several references to other Nintendo properties throughout the game- on 2 shelves, you can see little statues of various things such as an Arwing and some F-Zero racers, and you even get to meet both Link and Samus Aran! Attention to detail is one of my most-appreciated qualities in a developer. Lastly… okay, I’ve held up enough. Culex. Everyone who’s heard of this game by now knows about him. He’s this side-boss you can fight who’s incredibly tough, and is basically ripped right out of a Final Fantasy game- all the way down to, for this battle only, the fight music being the boss theme of Final Fantasy IV, and the win music being the traditional Final Fantasy victory fanfare. It’s a great moment, and it gets a bit meta- as Culex departs to… wherever he came from I guess, he says to Mario “In another game, we may have been mortal enemies… Let us part as comrades in arms.” Moments like this, where game developers poke fun at themselves, are great, and I always laugh at them.
With all these bizarre moments, crazy characters, fun details, and very, VERY solid gameplay, I think that Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars can be best summed up thusly- This game is like a theme park. There’s all kinds of wacky attractions that, while not exactly cohesive, are incredibly fun to go through. Since it’s on the Virtual Console now, might as well hop on some roller coasters and enjoy the ride!

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