November 3rd, 2009
I think it’s fair to say that Super Mario RPG is a fairly good adaption of the Mario universe to the Squaresoft’s 16-bit RPG design, with a surprising number of minor innovations to boot. The fusion of adventure elements to the RPG formula is one such example of innovation, as is the pre-rendered visual style. There are some minor annoyances, quirks and flashes of brilliance sprinkled throughout the adventure, here are a couple of dot points that grabbed my attention:
Rareware Won in the End, Didn’t they?
Originally, still shots of Super Mario RPG had convinced me that the characters would appear malformed, charmless and slightly dark. This is true to some extent. The contrast of blacks is cranked up too high and the characters, in their 3D representations, do look a little uncanny. Overall though Squaresoft did a faithful job at ensuring that the visual design fits within the series’ overall style guide and avoids the aforementioned issues. Everything does appear slightly skewed and malformed by the perspective, but much is forgiven after watching the character sprites perform comedic reenactments in an over exaggerated, comedic fashion. Surprisingly they actually hold a lot of character.
There’s an sad irony to it though. When Miyamoto-san was designing Yoshi’s Island, he decidedly designed the game to look primitive and child-like in something of a response to the pressure NCL was dumping on him to mimic the 3D sprite design from Donkey Kong Country in the next Mario game. Super Mario RPG uses a very similar design to DKC, albeit presented from an isometric viewpoint. It’s kind of crushing in this way to see Mario’s last SNES game conform to this nature, undermining Miyamoto’s refusal of tech-driven visual design. Furthermore, Squaresoft would only go on to abandon Nintendo, make a game which popularizes even more flashy tech (Final Fantasy VII and full motion video) and therefore partly ensure the companies “loss” in the next generation of consoles. As with the 3D sprites themselves it’s a little uncanny.
The overall difficulty curve in Super Mario RPG is quite generous, particularly if you level early. As with the other games in the series, it can be interpreted as an RPG lite, I wouldn’t think so personally though. There are two or three points in the game where the difficult spikes without warning though. Early on in the adventure just after Mallow joins your team, the difficulty adjusts for the added party member, yet Mallow is very weak and only has limited FP (flower power; magic) to heal, so he keeps dying, leaving Mario to pick up the slack against double the number of enemies.
A couple of the boss battles too can be unfairly difficult or require an arcane set of tactics to finally down. Nearing the end of the game, the Czar Dragon and Axem Rangers are two such examples. Besides these occasional nuisances though the Super Mario RPG is hassle free. I’m hesitant to call it an RPG-lite or a beginner’s RPG, but it certainly takes the weight off the combat and grinding and instead places the focus on the dungeon exploration and sub-games built into some of the levels.
Distribution of Stars
Most games abide by the carrot and stick principle whereby they string players along by teasing them with rewards which are just outside their reach. Super Mario RPG tends to follow this approach too stringently and in turn often drags the player through long sequences of play only to take off with the reward, leaving you empty-handed.
Players enter dungeons with the expectation of receiving a reward at the end of it, otherwise why would they bother entering one in the first place? Put simply: players need carrots. If you break these expectations then the player will likely feel betrayed by the game design and play something else. The simple trick is this: Don’t break this rule or else you break the player’s confidence in your game.
Occasionally Super Mario RPG will throw that rule out the window. As with every game in the Mario RPG series, Mario and company must collect 8 stars to resolve some sort of Mushroom-Kingdom-threatening crisis. One would thereby assume that after a hard slog in a dungeon the player would be given their star and sent on their way. However, at the end of at least 2 or 3 of SM RPG‘s numerous dungeon-like areas, just as Mario reaches for his sparkly reward some twerp swipes it from under his nose. The nefarious goon will swoop in, snatch the star, say a few words of pity before fleeing to the next area. Argh! Why would you do that to people? To further frustration, one of Mario’s stars is at one stage stolen from him, proving that players only enjoy exploiting the game and not being exploited themselves.
I don’t mind new content (SM RPG does drag on a little though), but I wish Squaresoft would’ve connected the narrative together in a way which didn’t seem to demean or trick the player, especially when the trick is a compulsory part of the play experience.
When you analyse the spread of content though, it’s easy to see how Squaresoft resorted to this approach. Super Mario RPG isn’t filled with 8 large dungeons with each one housing a star. Instead Super Mario RPG contains many small to medium sized dungeons (fitting in with the RPG lite theme somewhat), the proportions of dungeons to stars therefore doesn’t match very well. Some of the dungeons are used as transition points into the next area (many of the forests are used in this way), others are used in connection with the town villagers which’ll reward you with items to then advance to the next area. Taking the star away from the player is one such technique at justifying the distribution of areas, but when we consider the aforementioned principles (never betray the player) we see that this approach is highly problematic. In regards to the player then, they’re likely to feel bitter and view the technique as an artificial.
I found myself constantly surprised by the minor instances of interactivity that SM RPG provides with its NPCs, separate from the main narrative. For example, in one of the villages Mario helps a group of toads waiting to get married, after the event the toads prepare for a group wedding photo out the front of the chapel, in which case Mario is invited to join in on the photo. Every location has similar spurts of random interactivity with the NPCs, it’s a neat little way to work narrative more seamlessly into the game.
Jumping in the Isometric Perspective and a Lack of Clues in Landing a Critical Attack
Explains itself really. Super Mario RPG is presented in an isometric viewpoint therefore jumping is a little awkward as the tile infront of the player is diagonally position. Squaresoft were courteous enough to include a shadow under Mario which gives a clear indication of where he’ll land.
Super Mario RPG, as with the Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi series, allows the player to pull off critical hits if they time their attacks just right. Just by watching someone play though you wouldn’t tell as unlike the later games there are no visual clues to indicate when the player can/cannot land a critical hit. Furthermore, the party switches their weapons every couple of towns each of which have different attack animations and therefore different timing patterns in landing a critical attack.