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Super Mario RPG is halfway between a remaster and remake

Between The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Super Mario Bros. Wonder, it’s been a banner year for the Italian video game icon – and it’s not over yet. On November 17, Nintendo will cap off a successful 2023 with the hotly anticipated Super Mario RPG. The surprising release brings back one of the plumber’s most eccentric adventures, 1996’s Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Super Nintendo. It’s a neglected cult classic that’s been long overdue for some attention.

The question, though, is what kind of treatment a title like that deserves. Should Nintendo simply have rereleased it on Switch Online? Would an HD remaster suffice? Or was a full remake in order? If the Switch version is any indication, Nintendo may have found itself a little stumped with that question too.

Ahead of its launch later this month, I played through the first three hours of Super Mario RPG (so far, I’ve approached three star pieces and teamed up with the fan favorite Geno). That would give me a strong idea of how Nintendo is approaching the release. And based on everything I’ve seen so far, Super Mario RPG sits in something of a middle ground between remaster and remake. It’s an incredibly faithful refresh of a genre classic, though one that might leave newcomers a little confused at first.

An aesthetic refresh

Super Mario RPG may come with a total graphical overhaul, but it doesn’t stray very far from the original 1996 release. It’s so close that I was able to solve some tricky puzzles — like a minigame in Melody Bay that has Mario jumping on the backs of tadpoles to compose a song — by referring back to ancient strategy guides on GameFAQs and YouTube. The first three hours are a nearly one-to-one experience, which is good news for fans who want a very faithful experience.

The main difference comes in its aesthetic departments. The most exciting change here is a newly rerecorded soundtrack, which does the original RPG’s memorable score justice. Every composition sounds more lush and fully realized, bringing some vibrant personality to locations like Rose Town and Moleville. Purists can even choose to swap back to the classic recordings at any time via the main menu, which is a nice preservation touch.

Geno confronts a boss in the woods in Super Mario RPG.

The larger change comes from its visual refresh. Gone are the SNES’ thick sprites and almost Claymation-like environments. All of that’s been smoothed over to bring it more in line with the modern (pre-Wonder) Mario look. It turns the world into a colorful cartoon, though Nintendo doesn’t do away with the original’s general design in the process. It still feels like I’m a kid moving my toys around small dioramas.

On top of that, excellent new cinematics really bring the 1996 release’s best moments to life by breaking out of the original’s limited, isometric perspective. The moment where Geno springs to life especially stands out. Rather than just watching him sprout from a doll to a living being in a few blinks, we’re treated to a more dynamic sequence where he stumbles around clumsily as he gets his bearings. It’s a lovely sequence that matched the way my imagination filled in the gaps previously.

Mario, Mallow, Bowser, and Geno stare off-screen in Super Mario RPG.

Those modernizations are much welcomed, but they do make areas that haven’t been upgraded stand out. The oddest aesthetic choice is that Nintendo opted out of adding voices to characters. When Mallow speaks during a new cutscene, he’s completely silent as subtitles appear on screen. Even Mario stays silent, with not so much as a “wa-hoo” filling in blank spaces (an off choice considering Kevin Afghani just made a strong debut as Mario in Wonder). While faithful to the original, it’s an absence that feels at odds with the rest of the refresh; it’s all just a bit too quiet.

A new battle system

While the story and general gameplay feel entirely unaltered outside of aesthetic refreshes so far, there are a few major changes to be found in combat. The basics of battle are identical here, with timing-based moves, random flowers that grant bonuses mid-battle, and spells that come with their own quick minigames. That’s all reinforced with some simple quality of life changes. For instance, an exclamation point now appears to telegraph when players should press buttons during attacks and defenses. No guesswork is required anymore.

As an even smaller example, the “Lucky” minigame returns in which players can double their experience points or coins by correctly finding a Yoshi in three shuffling eggs. That was a serious gamble in the original release, as it was hard to pin down where Yoshi moved to each time. That’s significantly easier this time around, as I’ve yet to fail in my three hours of playtime.

Mario and his crew battle Koopas in Super Mario RPG.

In general, Super Mario RPG seems much easier than its predecessor so far — and that’s not a bad thing. It’s mostly thanks to little changes like these that cut away some tedium. Autosaving, for instance, makes it so I’m no longer set back very far after a death. It’s also easier to fix up my party on the fly between battles with a more organized mini menu that groups items together (no more scrolling through 10 mushrooms to find syrup) and a quick ability menu that lets me use Mallow’s healing rain outside of battle.

The more impactful change comes from a new power gauge, which ties into a reworked combo system. When players correctly time moves, they’ll chain together into a combo that grants buffs the higher the number goes. Successful chains can raise the team’s damage, for example. That’ll also fill a gauge on the left-hand side of the screen. When it hits 100% initially, players can trigger a Toad Assist that’ll give Mario and Mallow random buffs or execute a special attack. When Geno joins the party, Toad Assist turns into a devastating triple attack that comes with its own exciting battle cinematic. It’s a smart addition that better encourages players to learn perfect timings and nail their nuances.

Mallow, Mario, and Geno leap in the air in Super Mario RPG.

Though that’s an exciting change, I’ve run into some circumstances where some more archaic parts of the unaltered combat poke through. A single battle against a pair of enemies that could turn me into a useless Mushroom dragged on for over 10 minutes as I got trapped in a loop when my teammates went down. I couldn’t attack as enemies repeatedly inflicted the status effect on me every other turn. It was a frustrating pain point that signaled that there may not be a lot of retooling happening under the surface.

That leaves Super Mario RPG in a strange place so far. It’s still the same great game it’s always been, but I’m not entirely sure if it’s a better version of it. SNES quirks stand out like a sore thumb here underneath modern sights and sounds. It’s a project that sometimes feels like a loving ode to the original and then like a hastily assembled double-dip in other moments (some cinematics even happen on empty gray backgrounds that feel half-finished). Its success will hinge on the power of the base game. Is the adventure still magical enough on its own to overcome some patchy remake flaws? That answer could very well be yes, but I’ve got four more stars to find before I can say for sure.

Super Mario RPG launches on November 17 for Nintendo Switch.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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