lauantai 4. syyskuuta 2010

REVIEW - Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1996)

Genre(s): RPG
Released: 1996
Available on: SNES, Virtual Console
Developer(s): Square
Publisher(s): Nintendo
Players: 1

By 1995, Mario had been the lead character in just about every sort of game imaginable. The golden days of Japanese role-playing games reminded Shigeru Miyamoto of the genre his most beloved son hadn't conquered yet. Influenced by the success of Square's critically acclaimed titles like Final Fantasy IV and VI, and their latest unrelated masterpiece Chrono Trigger, Miyamoto and his multitalented co-director Chihiro Fujioka took leadership over a handpicked development team at Square, and created one of the most unique RPG experiences ever, released one year into production and hailed by many as a cult classic - not just Mario fans, but RPG buffs as well. I just spent three days hacking through this old favourite of mine from the last remarkable days of the SNES. So, how's the game all these years later? Not perfect, but still fun, surreal and very different from any RPG you've ever seen.

In flower power we trust

While fiddling around in Mario's garden, Princess Toadstool is once again kidnapped by Bowser. Everyone's favourite plumber enters Bowser's keep and fights his arch nemesis while Toadstool cheers for him. Suddenly, a massive sword rips the sky and falls on the castle, sending all three flying. Unable to re-enter the castle taken over by the mysterious gang of fiends from the skies, Mario sets out to search for the missing duo of Toadstool and Bowser - and gets tangled in a plot that concerns everyone in the world, his friends and foes alike.

It's-a-me, Mario! Would love some of
Toadstool's world famous cake right now!
Graphically, the game isn't quite as nice as I remembered. Most of the exterior, forested areas look plain and the empty spaces surrounding the isometric playfield look quite dumb. The towns, except those with a distinctive theme like Moleville, all look the same in architecture and there are very few landmarks to separate them from the rest. Technically, though, the game takes a lot out of the SNES. The graphical effects are excellent, and the diverse 3D sprites don't twitch at all. The wisely limited use of ACM brings some of its own spice into the table. Although the game might start to look bland from time to time, especially in maze-like areas in which you need to engage in long strains of fights to keep going, I can't overlook the juice it squeezes out of the SNES with already a half of itself.

Music has always been a crucial part of Square's M.O., however Super Mario RPG's soundtrack really ain't that special. Former Capcom in-house talent Yoko Shimomura (Street Fighter II, Breath of Fire etc.) mixes up a batch of classic, reworked Mario tunes, and a variety of new music generally influenced by Koji Kondo's works, including the Legend of Zelda series. Unique remixes of the old stuff are all quite good and the use of music is overall good and imaginative, but the new stuff doesn't really offer up anything great on Square's standards, at least before the game's last one or two hours. The battle music deserves a special mention of being quite horrid. During the first couple of hours it might sound cheery, pleasant and all that, but it's extremely repetitive and will drill a hole in the skull of anyone who's willing to beat this game to the hilt, sooner or later. The sound effects are fine, but Mario's mandatory and constant jumping might turn out as unnerving as the music pretty early on for many players, and some enemy attacks are accompanied by a sound that is very similar to that of a soaking wet fart.

The battle system's neat and innovative. It's
the battles themselves that get quite boring.
I have said it before, albeit indirectly, that for me, taking on Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars is like going into the attic to dig through my old TMNT action figures and Lego blocks - an extremely warm memory from my childhood. Well, I wasn't exactly a child, more of an annoying preteen when I bought Super Mario RPG - but it made me feel like one, and it still does... for a while, until reality kicks in. I've grown out of the humour and self-conscious naivete of the game. I can't fully appreciate its dialogue and storyboard in general as much as I did when I was younger, but I still like and respect Super Mario RPG as a game. The developers played around with RPG basics and clichés, mercilessly throwing many elements into the waste basket while putting extra weight on others. They never did quite cross the border of pissing a true RPG fan off with the game, nor did they ever apply too traditional RPG elements that would've turned kids, who thought this was just another Mario game, off. I have honestly heard of several young World of Warcraft players who got into role-playing thanks to Super Mario RPG. It really is a fine place to start for any kids interested in role-playing, but who can't quite get the basics of an RPG. Despite its simplicity, Super Mario RPG is an entertaining and unique game at least every Mario fan should experience once.

All of the basic elements of an RPG are there: leveling up, buying items and equipment, interacting with tons of NPC's and travelling through cities and dungeons for tens of hours - taking on several quests to get to some ultimate objective. However, above all else Super Mario RPG is a Mario game. You can safely expect to see a stunning cavalcade of vintage Mario elements of the past, including carefully reworked locations and familiar characters, from friends to foes, enemies to NPC's. The game has a lot of surprises in store when it comes to the universe and legacy of the Mario series. It was clearly made to entertain, and wrap up Mario's run on the SNES in distinctive style.

"No. Chuck Norris."
The game is like a combination of a platformer and an RPG. There is a LOT of jumping in this game, and the three-dimensional isometric playfield makes the inclusion of challenges based on jumping possible. Mario is known all around the game's universe for his amazing jumping ability. It's no surprise that jumping also brings on the most frustration in this game. It requires both timing and precision that might turn off players into more traditional RPG's. If the enemy encounters were random, falling all the way down during a long climb, over and over again and having to start the climb over would spell an unplayable nightmare. Luckily, they aren't. The enemies in the game are in plain sight all the time, and enemy encounters are relatively easy to avoid. Most regular enemies don't even respawn before you exit and re-enter the screen, so you are given the opportunity to struggle through even the trickiest platformer sequences in peace as long as you're willing to beat the crap out of them once. The "willing" part's the most difficult one.

Fighting in this game is very unique and fun at first. Then it gets just too damn easy and boring. First of all, fighting in the game is strictly turn-based; enemies won't attack you while your command window is open, so you have a lot of time to plan your attacks or cure yourself. There's also kind of a strange logic; the enemy's size doesn't tell jack about the enemy's physical strength or defense power - there are points in which you fight a buff, a smaller enemy guarding the main guy, for two minutes with all you've got, and defeating the main guy takes about one punch. Most importantly, if you're an avid RPG player, you'll probably try to level up as much and as soon as possible. If you spend enough time leveling up in the beginning of the game, something along the lines of three or four times the average player, and continue to fight steadily by taking care of each enemy in each screen just once, you'll overpower all enemies quite quickly, and continue doing that until the very end of the game. The arena of the final battle is the only really challenging one in the whole storyline, and even that is a snap if you've went out of your way to conquer all of the game's different secrets. Yes, secrets - there aren't many actual sidequests in the traditional sense, so the game's quite linear, too. These secrets include hidden question mark blocks all around the world, a few extremely hard additional bosses, and a mysterious casino which I have never found in the game, and haven't put much thought into finding it, either.

It's all about those stars.
I don't want to go deeper into the plot, but since the game's title already kind of gives it away, your main objective in the game is to find seven magical stars, which control the destinies of the inhabitants of Mario's world. You advance on a nifty world map that remotely reminds me of the one in Super Mario World, and travel from location to location to save people in despair and, occasionally, find one of the stars in the process. During your travels, you'll gain a party of five, including whole new characters Mallow and Geno, who are both well designed dudes and very welcome to the Mario universe on my account. The other two... well, I couldn't resist those couple of screenshots, so just check them out if you want to know. Each of the characters has a specific set of weapons and armor, but for example, Mario's fists are not his only weapons; he can also use different hammers and Koopa Troopa shells.

This kind of reminds me of my usual bar back
in the day.
This takes us back to the fighting, which is really a quite interesting concept despite of getting boring towards the game's end. There's no traditional command list, it's replaced by a Y-X-B-A scheme in which each button dictates a command; Y is for special attacks, X for items, B for defense and A for normal attacks. One of the things that makes the battles so easy and boring is just that 70% of the time, you don't need anything else but those normal attacks to get by if your stats are good enough. There are not many really useful special attacks or items. The items become even more irrelevant once a medic joins the group, with her surprisingly impressive and useful list of special commands. The items actually become a nuisance quite quickly, since there's a ridiculous inventory limit of 29 items (and 30 for pieces of equipment). I hate inventory limits in all games in general, this one pretty much takes the cake since none of the items even stack. Oh yeah, coinage is limited too, to 999. And since we're talking about numbers here, I have to say Super Mario RPG is the only role-playing game I've ever seen, that doesn't have an in-game clock. I can just estimate that beating the game is perfectly possible within 20 hours.

To just resiliently stick with the fighting, I have to bring out the bonuses. You randomly get different bonuses by defeating certain breeds of enemies, which is even more likely if you score a Timed Hit, an effective double attack that is triggered by pressing the attack button again at the exact right time. These bonuses include a temporary perk to the attacking character's attack or defense power, Once Again! which enables him or her to instantly enter another command, and Lucky! which challenges you to a double-or-nothing minigame right after the battle, in which you can double the EXP or coins gained from the battle, or lose them all by jumbling the simple "find it" type of game up. When a character levels up - all of the party gains EXP from battles, not just the active one - you'll be able to grant him or her an extra perk for strength, HP or magic each time. The characters learn new special attacks upon hitting a certain level mark.

Never thought to see those three as a team,
huh? How did it come to this? Play the game
and see for yourself.
Flower Points, FP, are this game's equivalent of MP. All of the party members share the same FP meter, and it's replenished by using different sorts of Syrup. The maximum FP is raised with different flower containers, such as jars and boxes, and of course, by leveling up. Of course, the few useful special techniques drain a ridiculous amount of FP, which makes the Syrup actually worth something.

Speaking of minigames a couple of rows back, this one's got 'em. Most of them are different race concepts introduced during the storyline, and which you are able to return to any time and try your luck with a different agenda, like just high scores, money or special items. One of the most valuable items in the game is a Frog Coin, which is like a regular coin, but green. Accumulating enough of these valuable nickels enables you to buy some really cool items and accessories that will make your progress even easier, yet a bit more comfortable and rewarding, than it already is. The minigames include a Mode 7-powered mine cart race, an obstacle course on a river and even a "Game Boy game" called Beetle Mania, accessible via the main menu once you meet a person you can buy a Game Boy from.

Every RPG's got to have a dragon. Even this
Well, I've complained about a lot of things thus far, so why the final rating? Well... that's a tough question. Like I said, I don't fully get the game's humour anymore. But it was damn funny when I was a kid, and the in-jokes meant to be more clever than insanely funny are still clever. The game has some great characters, not just vintage ones, but also new ones, including those whose career in Mario games began and ended here. The quality of the actual dialogue switches between on and off constantly, but it's mostly fair, in a naive Nintendo sort of way; the thing that annoys me most about it is the inconsistency, also known as the "Ted Woolsey syndrome", in character development. Geno starts out speaking in a very clear, polite and charismatic way, and occasionally he goes all "Yo dudes!". Very distracting to me on a personal level, but overall quite a minor point. Also, I like the game because it's so different from all other RPG's, so diverse. It's like any Mario game, with an occasionally really strange, surreal role-playing scheme.

In one word, it's cool. But like I said, it's simple and easy. It's extremely fun to return to Super Mario RPG from time to time, but the thing is that the older I get and the more proficient I get in "real" RPG games, the more I see the game as a naive, effortless gallery of Mario's legacy. It's extremely fun and somehow, extremely annoying at the same time. Probably the hardest game for me to review, ever.

Since I have to come to some sort of a conclusion here, I just have to recommend the game as someone who was once a huge Mario fan; I can see how cool the game would be from one's standpoint on the first playthrough. On that first playthrough, you just don't know what to expect from the game, from its gameplay, story or the nature of its numerous secrets and easter eggs, and seeing all the surprises unfold is a blast. So, my final words: don't mock it 'til you've tried it.

Graphics : 9.0
Sound : 7.7
Playability : 8.8
Challenge : 7.3
Overall : 8.5


GameRankings: 87.94%

Nintendo Power ranks Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars #44 on their list of the Top 200 Nintendo Games of All Time.

First and only official Super Mario game not developed by Nintendo.

The last Mario game for the SNES, Square's last game to be released exclusively on a Nintendo system, and translator Ted Woolsey's last game on Square's payroll.

The original SNES version of the game was never released in Europe due to the launch of the Nintendo 64. In August 2008, the game was finally released in Europe on Wii's Virtual Console service.

Link from The Legend of Zelda makes a cameo appearance as a customer at the Rose Town Inn.

Samus Aran from Metroid makes a cameo appearance as a house guest at the Mushroom Kingdom castle, if the player revisits the castle at a certain point in the game.

Culex, the game's hardest boss, is a tribute to the Final Fantasy series. His battle theme is the boss theme from Final Fantasy IV, and if the party manages to defeat him, the normal victory fanfare is replaced with the classic Final Fantasy fanfare. He also uses four crystals tied to different elements, which are a recurring theme in the Final Fantasy series.

The game's storyline, events or new characters are hardly ever referenced in other Mario games, but the likeness of Geno makes a brief cameo in Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga.

Although a sequel to the game was planned, it never became reality. However, the game is often referred to as the spiritual predecessor to Intelligent Systems' Paper Mario (2000) and AlphaDream's Mario & Luigi series.

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