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How Super Mario RPG Ended the SNES RPG Golden Age

Given the success of 1994’s Donkey Kong Country, which employed a pre-rendered 3D art style that pushed the SNES hardware’s technical capabilities, Super Mario RPG also took on a similar art style. To help facilitate this, Super Mario RPG cartridges were fitted with the Nintendo SA-1 chip: a microprocessor embedded within the cartridge that boosted its processing and memory power.

The Joys of Super Mario RPG

Aside from its presentation and battle system, Super Mario RPG starts out like any other classic Super Mario game as Mario raids Bowser’s Castle to rescue the kidnapped Princess Toadstool. This routine confrontation is quickly upended when Exor, a giant living sword, crashes through Star Road and Bowser’s Castle, sending everyone at the scene flying in different parts of the Mushroom Kingdom and its surrounding regions. In the confusion, the Smithy Gang, a group of villains led by the mechanical Smithy, invades the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario scrambles to collect fragments from Star Road, reunite with Princess Toadstool, and defeat Smithy.

Even with its unique gameplay style, Super Mario RPG feels very much like a natural expansion of the franchise, with a deeper look at the culture between the Yoshis and the lore behind Star Road, two prominent concepts introduced in Super Mario World which kicked off the SNES era in 1990. But Super Mario RPG also takes the time to create effective new elements, from fan-favorite allies Mallow (a living cloud) and Geno (an animated doll) to environments like Monstro Town and Nimbus Land. These new elements feel as organic to the Super Mario franchise as they are memorable, brought to life with the same family-friendly art style and quirky sense of humor.

Like many contemporary RPGs, Super Mario RPG has a turn-based combat system but, reflecting its initial plans as an action RPG, there are timed action commands to enhance attacks and other techniques. This makes the combat much more engaging than any other, more passive, turn-based RPG on the SNES, while the game boasts up to five playable characters, each with their own special abilities. In the fun twist on the mythos, Super Mario RPG is also the first time Mario and Bowser work together against a common foe and represents the first playable appearance of Bowser beyond 1992’s Super Mario Kart. With its pre-rendered animation style, vibrant sound design, and newly introduced corners of the Super Mario universe, Super Mario RPG provided a thoroughly unique and fresh experience for the franchise and one that wouldn’t be replicated until the upcoming remake.

Even more than just standing impressively as one of the best RPG titles on the SNES amidst a stacked field, Super Mario RPG marks the end of Nintendo’s focus on the SNES moving forward. Composer Yoko Shimomura, who previously composed the soundtracks for Street Fighter II: The World Warrior and the acclaimed SNES RPG Breath of Fire, pushed the sound capabilities of the console as far as it could go for Super Mario RPG, providing it with a soundtrack that was as varied as it was memorable. Shimomura would additionally incorporate Koji Kondo’s iconic Super Mario music into the score, as well as tracks from Square’s own Final Fantasy IV to underscore Super Mario RPG’s place as a serious RPG experience.

This meticulous strategy and production paid off handsomely for Nintendo, with Super Mario RPG selling nearly 1.5 million copies in Japan alone, making it the third best-selling game in the country in 1996. In North America, Super Mario RPG exceeded Nintendo’s expectations and became the sixth best-selling game in the United States in 1996, surpassed only by Super Mario 64, the Donkey Kong Country sequels, Wave Race 64, and Madden ‘97 on the PlayStation. The game wasn’t entirely beaten by next-gen efforts, though. Super Mario RPG even outsold the original Resident Evil, the original Crash Bandicoot, and Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire that year.

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