The “genre mash-up” label is usually not a harbinger of artistic integrity. At their most transparent and desperate (think Cowboys and Aliens or Pride & Prejudice and Zombies), these crossovers reek of the worst commercial instincts, peddling a glib, digestible conceit over story and passion. They’re the sort of high-concept, pitch-friendly ideas that sound clever in passing but less so with every future mention, the shining allure of the “it’s like [blank] meets [blank]!” tagline – of familiar things made semi-new – slowly collapsing in on its own hollowness. In video games, no genre has suffered more indecencies at the hands of this Frankenstein-like graft treatment than the role-playing game. Nearly every other type of game has had the basic hallmarks of the RPG sutured onto it like a disproportionate fifth limb, as if skill leveling and weapon modification alone could transform any kart racer or hallway shoot-’em-up into something complex and heady. A handful of games incorporate these mechanics into their potpourris as easily as Quentin Tarantino can splice together the aesthetics of trash and art cinema, but more often than not, “contains RPG elements” is a kinder shorthand for “features extraneous bells and whistles to make this experience feel more involved than it actually is.”
Yet every once in awhile, something amazing happens, and a genre mash-up ends up being downright beautiful. Not simply fun, or teasingly postmodern, or something to enjoy for reference humor or nerdy attention to detail, but a work that uses its unlikely combination of influences not only to subvert and deepen our appreciation of its dual source material, but to convince us that the amalgamation itself is the piece of a unique and impassioned artist. We see this in older classics like Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, a French film inspired by Hollywood gangster pictures and the eponymous Japanese warrior’s code. But it’s in our current, ceaseless torrent of popular culture, where people have the entirety of any medium or genre at their fingertips and fandoms converge around the most specific of subcultures, that these crossovers make the most sense. While this insatiable desire for more content has also allowed zombies and pirates to be inserted into any unfit setting with all the grace of The Flintstones Meet the Jetsons, it’s also allowed for pop culture fusions that might just be more than the sum of their parts. We see it in the Nickelodeon-meets-Miyazaki miracle of Avatar: The Last Airbender (perhaps the most transporting cartoon serial ever and certainly one of the best “Hero’s Journey” yarns of late) or in Jeff Smith’s truly epic Pogo-by-way-of-Tolkien comic odyssey Bone, a book I’d reach for long before Fellowship of the Ring. These are the sort of brainy, emotionally involving works that balance two different genres so that their weaknesses actually cancel each other out and the audience is left with only what’s effective about both. In video games, I can think of no fuller example of this than Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.
As I said, RPG mechanics are incredibly tough to implement fluidly; add too little and they feel like an afterthought, but go overboard and they come dreadfully close to busywork. So it’s in Super Mario RPG‘s favor that its Mario-ness sits on a solid RPG foundation and not vice-versa. (Also, I think if any series in video game history deserves to be referred to as its own genre, it’s definitely Mario.) The decision to fashion the game in the classic turn-based tradition instead of focusing more on the action element was wise, especially considering this was Square at the height of its powers, not far removed from Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. (Surely I’m not alone in seeing these three as a piece?) But while Square’s tradition serves as the solid bedrock, the true ecstasy is how it so neatly double helixes with the plumber’s DNA, elevating both halves with natural ease. Mario allows Square to fly a freak flag only hinted at in past releases, to crystallize moments in pure comedy and playfulness that before were too tethered to grandness and scale. (It doesn’t hurt that the translated text is surprisingly well done and often very funny. It’s fast, loose, and sometimes even surprising, with an ear for localized slang and wordplay that doesn’t feel forced.) And Mario’s poetic sense of motion doesn’t merely survive, but thrives in this more earthbound setting, his trademark springiness lending the inert RPG landscape a certain dynamism; it’s so subtly satisfying to finally be allowed to jump on the beds and bookcases that populate the many villages’ homes instead of clumsily bump into them on the way to the next NPC conversation. The game’s most noteworthy innovation, the incorporation of timed attacks in the turned-based battles, doesn’t fully compensate for the inescapable monotony of the form, but it’s a worthy attempt at integrating the immediacy of a platformer into the structure.
Mario doesn’t leave the experiment unchanged, either. The greater attention to character, dialogue, and exploration – elements that seem so inessential to the Mario experience – access the childlike wonder and good-natured anarchy that always served the franchise well in the background but was never before brought center-stage. Mario’s world never felt lived-in before Super Mario RPG, and while the game is smart enough to not get into, say, the nitty gritty of the Toads’ day-to-day routines and relationships, I buy them here as characters with parts to play more than I do when they’re informing me that our princess is in another castle. This is by no means a character study – I’d be hard pressed to tell you a single personality trait of fan-favorite party member Geno – but the approach augments the details just enough that this is an entertaining world to inhabit as well as bounce through. One of the most interesting common grounds Super Mario RPG finds between the Square games and Super Mario is that despite their wildly different tones, they’re both essentially skewed fairy tales. The game’s main conflict focuses on control of the “Star Road,” a magical place in the heavens where wishes are fulfilled. It’s just simple and silly enough for a Mario setting and just cosmic enough for a Square RPG. And Mario always had dragons to battle and beanstalks to climb, so why not add a puppet that comes to life or a lost prince unsure of his true identity? The difference here is that Square doesn’t simply submit these elements to the Mushroom Kingdom’s usual Dadaist whimsy; there’s a wistfulness to their approach that can even lend Mario a bittersweet flavor. Not that there’s really ever a lack of wackiness, though; did I mention that lost prince is a cloud who’s convinced he’s a tadpole? It’s just for once tempered by something approaching sentiment.
It’s a wonder how well Square subverts our expectations of a Mario game without ever seeming parodic or cheap. The game opens, as it must, with Bowser kidnapping Princess Toadstool, Mario bravely volunteering to save her, and the two forces butting heads. Yet right in the middle of the conflict, a greater threat emerges and the age-old enemies eventually join forces. (And even the Princess joins the good fight! Sure, it’d be nice if we could someday return to the forward-thinking days of Super Mario Bros. 2 where Peach didn’t attack enemies with a frying pan or, um her emotions, but even bothering to cast her in a non-sports/racing game is huge for Mario gender politics.) It’s an entertaining scene, one that plays lovingly with the idea that Bowser’s princess-nabbing is a common occurrence performed more out of duty than spite. But it’s not mocking and fits neatly into the Mario universe, especially in hindsight when we’ve seen the scenario play out at least a dozen more times. As far as characterization goes, Bowser might be my favorite part of the game. Turning him into an obviously insecure bully more concerned with keeping up appearances than ever being truly evil just feels completely right. Other moments riff on the Mario games we know and love in equally delightful ways, such as random townspeople being starstruck by the hero’s famed jumping abilities. One of my favorite locales in the game is a village populated by famous Mushroom Kingdom bad guys, now reformed and getting by like any other NPC. Ideas such as this form one of the most important tenets in all of Mario-dom: Concepts like “good” and “evil” are secondary to fun and inventiveness.
Square obviously had a blast creating new characters that would fit the Mario tone. (There’s one famous exception: A secret, tough-as-nails boss from another dimension whose pixels are even holdovers from the early Final Fantasy games.) While the effect is sometimes tiring in a game that’s a bit overstuffed with incident, tangents, and wild personalities, for the most part the excitement coursing through their imagination is contagious. The best of the bunch is Booster, a bearded, batty oddball who resembles Popeye‘s Bluto enough that he threatens to turn Mario into the Max Fleischer cartoon it’s always dreamed of being. He’s the sort of incoherent, unpredictable villain I’d love to see a game centered around, certainly more compelling than the main antagonist. (Although that character, Smithy, does serve his purpose. An interdimensional weapons manufacturer, he’s the antithesis of both Square’s environmentalist themes and Mario‘s old-fashioned, kid-friendly hop-and-bop charm. But still, he’s kind of stupid, even for a Mario villain.) There are plenty of memorable characters, and I’m sure some I missed. This is a game crawling with secrets, but not in a frustrating or inconsequential way. Mario always had its hidden pipes and boxes, and while those are present and accounted for, Square also hitches this treasure hunting to character and environment. It’s fairly standard RPG practice to backtrack for secrets and hidden gems, and Super Mario RPG doesn’t implement it quite as effectively as Chrono Trigger‘s world-altering Easter Eggs. Still, the environments are still charming upon revisit, and the side quests are off-hand enough to stumble upon by accident (perhaps the most rewarding way to find them), so it’s hardly the chore it is in some games.
For all its charm, this is not a perfect game. The journey’s last leg drags endlessly; I’m not sure if it was just turn-based battle fatigue, but I was infinitely less invested in what I was doing for the last fourth or so of the game. Bowser’s castle and Smithy’s factory are especially frustrating and much of the experience’s expert pace dissipates before your very eyes. And the few bits of genuine platforming in this isometric viewpoint are about as fun steering a shopping cart with a broken wheel. It also can’t quite match the emotional fulfillment and sense of awe that greets you at the end of something like Chrono Trigger, a game with equal quirk and heart but just a touch more resonance. But overall, Super Mario RPG is a triumph, a still-gorgeous piece of craftsmanship (seriously, how did they get that wonderful, luminous glow to everything back on the Super Nintendo?) that finds a kindred spirit in what were two of gaming’s most winning formulas in their day. For the first time, graphics tried to capture the bulbous, boisterous, three-dimensional world you always imagined Mario lived in. You could say the same thing about the game as a whole.
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