Mario is asleep in bed. It's a lovely wooden bed with a warm blanket and fat pillows. The bedroom's a bit odd, though. The room is carved out of rock, and if you were to walk out the door you'd see that it's one of a handful of rooms built into the scrabbly face of a cliff.
Something else is a bit odd too. As Mario sleeps, three ghostly figures appear above him. Three enemies come to him while he sleeps to offer a challenge. They call themselves the Musty Fears, and they will hide flags across the world for Mario to discover. When morning comes they're gone. Was it all a dream?
It's lovely to have an excuse to return to Super Mario RPG, now shorn of its subtitle and delivered afresh with new graphics, a few new combat tricks, and a real attention to detail. This is a devoted and precise remake of Mario's first RPG adventure, which means the lineage connecting the likes of Superstar Saga and the Paper Mario games begins here. Super Mario RPG's been available in Europe before, I gather, but only on the Wii's Virtual Console. This is a quietly lavish recreation of a game you might have missed, then. And, like the visit from the Musty Fears, it all feels like a bit of a dream.
Returning to Super Mario RPG in 2023 it's clear that this is a very streamlined RPG aimed at an audience who may not have even played an RPG before. The remake retains the isometric viewpoint of the original, along with Mario's oddly compacted appearance, but the characters are bright new models and the backgrounds have been reworked in proper 3D. It looks very colourful and fun - and crucially it still looks a bit odd. When I think back to the original game on the SNES, I picture something that belongs with the likes of the first Donkey Kong Country. These are games clearly caught, gracelessly, but not uninterestingly, between two hardware generations, and two distinct graphical sensibilities. Super Mario RPG came with sheeny 3D models and cut-n-paste lighting, but everything was also covered in a coating of scratchy pixel-edges and visual distortion. Games of these eras were gorgeously awkward. Down in the stable, these horses were being delivered sideways.
In terms of the plot and the unfolding of the missions, I couldn't spot many changes. Mario and a gang of oddballs set off on a quest to save the kingdom by regaining a collection of stars. Bowser and Princess Peach come along as team-mates, and so do newcomers Mallow, a puffy fellow who has been raised to think he's a frog, and Geno, a wooden puppet. The story is brisk and relatively uncluttered by sidequests, but it makes up for a lack of distractions with some mini-games, many of which are surprisingly fun, and some really wonderful locations.
Super Mario RPG was a collaboration between Nintendo and Square, and you can really tell. The isometric landscapes you travel through are very different to anything seen in the Mushroom Kingdom before. Mario still jumps to hit blocks, but they're wooden treasure chests, while the isometric sewers and forests feel more like stage settings for a gorgeous and evocative panto than the side-scrolling wonder-worlds of the platforming games. Super Mario RPG's areas are often sumptuous recreations of standard RPG locations, with a bit of a Mario twist. Towns will have inns for you to sleep in and shops to stock up at, but they'll have mushrooms and stars scattered on the walls, and the townsfolk will be toad-alikes. The adventure takes you to sunken ships, deserts, and, at one point, a town for reformed video game baddies. Everything is familiar but rendered strange by the blending of two distinct worlds. Like the title says: Super Mario, but also RPG.
It's a game of whimsical humour and fast-paced battles, and it's with the battle system that many of the more obvious tweaks to the formula have been made here. Mario and his pals still choose between standard attacks, specials - your options grow as you level up - and items to use each turn, but the timing aspect to combat has evolved. Time a jump or a punch or a hammer swing button tap perfectly and you'll do damage to any other enemies, alongside bonus damage to the enemy you're targeting. It feels a bit like nailing the boost start in Mario Kart, and works well with the time-based block move. Items equipped still give your team-members fresh attack options (I'm a fan particularly of Geno's finger guns) and most battles will require a balance of physical attacks and special moves, including healing. Also - and, again, I think this is new - as you pull off well-timed attacks you now build a meter that lets you cash it in upon completion for a showy triple move that does tons of damage. These moves vary depending on who's battling at the moment, but one sends you racing over a Star Road and then slamming into foes, for example, while another sends you aloft in Bowser's upside-down helicopter to bombard enemies with fire and ice.
Combat has all the quirks you'd expect from an RPG, like elemental weaknesses and crits, and there's a lovely range of enemies as the Mushroom Kingdom blends, again, with more traditional RPG stuff. And bosses are a real highlight. Be warned, though, that the original game's focus on button mashing for certain specials has remained intact. Once again, Nintendo's approach to accessibility comes up short.
I knew I would enjoy my return to Super Mario RPG. I love the Mario and Luigi games very dearly, and it's always interesting to go back to the start of things. I wasn't prepared for how much I'd be drawn in, though. Drawn in by that no-fuss campaign with its brilliant jokes and glorious whirlwind combat. I've loved my time with this game, and it's that rare remake that really preserves the spirit of the original very precisely.
One of my favourite gaming memories is playing Superstar Saga in December when I was home for the Christmas break. It's out this week, but I think Super Mario RPG would be perfectly deployed in the dark of December, when its sunny levels and rich colours could light up the gloom a little. This is lovely stuff: a rich world that is well worth a revisit.