The 90s was the golden era of 16-bit console RPGs. You had your Final Fantasy titles, your Secret of Mana, your Lufia games, and, for those unafraid of emulators, Tales of Phantasia.
But, a little late to the scene, riding on the shoulders of giants, came Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.
This was the game that got me interested in the RPG genre to begin with. From there I moved onto those Final Fantasy games and Lufia titles, and the masterpiece that is Tales of Phantasia.
But I first played this game (several times through) almost twenty years ago, now. As such, you'd be right to wonder whether the game holds up or not.
After spending a weekend working through it with friends, I can write confidently that it does. For the most part.
Graphically, the sprites based on 3D-models still look clean and neat (with the exception of monsters like Belome).
Aurally, the music and sound effects have all the charm they do in the other Mario games.
Story-wise, the game is still compelling since several characters and elements of the Mario world are explored for the first and (alas) last time.
And, as far as the gameplay is concerned, Super Mario RPG offers a fine blend of JRPG standards (turn based combat and side-questing for secret areas and items) and Mario-inspired mini-games and platforming.
Though, the game's platforming is much more difficult than I remember. Mostly because the game's isometric viewpoint doesn't lend itself to easily judging distances and depths. Were it possible, warming up with some Sonic 3D Blast probably would've helped.
But Super Mario RPG really shines in its minigames' integration with the main game. Most of these games are played through at least once because of some relevance to the story. Placing them within the structure of the game as a whole keeps you from needing to do any serious backtracking to retry them. The minigames' accessibility also makes the game's world feel much tighter than those that are spread out over expansive world maps.
The cost for that tight world design is high, though. There's little exploration involved in Super Mario RPG. Just as when I played the game as a kid, in this recent playthrough there were a few instances where the crook of a wall or the texture of a rock suggested that something lay just beyond it, if only you had some of Link's bombs or Samus' roll ability.
However, beating an RPG crafted by the masters of the console RPG golden era, SquareSoft (known now as Square Enix) in a weekend (approximately 20 hours) is otherwise unthinkable. Were there an expansive overworld in Super Mario RPG, rather than a node system, much more time would be spent in travel. Not to mention, time spent fighting monsters during that travel.
But that's Super Mario RPG's greatest strength.
Even though when you know what you're doing it's a fairly short RPG, it's an RPG of small, manageable numbers.
At level 22, equipped with the Lazy Shell and the Quartz Charm, Mario doles out 500 damage per turn against the game's final boss. No more than fifteen turns of that damage alone ends him.
Your characters' HP isn't likely to climb much higher than 200.
The game pools together your party's MP into a number that maxes out at 99.
For whatever bizarre reason, you can only ever carry a maximum of 999 coins. If you do so, you'll never be left with less than 300 coins after upgrading all five of your party members weapons and armour.
These relatively low numbers make the game supremely manageable and conceivable. These qualities make the game a welcome reprieve from other more expansive RPGs (like Dragon Quest IX, or the downright intimidating Xenoblade Chronicles), while also offering a ready amount of challenge in its hidden content. Not to mention the infamous achievement of winning the Super Suit for executing 100 consecutive Super Jumps on a single enemy.
So, though the challenge may be set outside of the main game, and the experience as a whole is short in comparison to other RPGs, Super Mario RPG's rich blend of its name's two key elements locks it firmly in place as a great classic of the 16 bit era of RPGs.