What do you really know about Mario? He’s an Italian plumber, desperately in love with the Princess of his native land, which is populated with evil turtles and walking mushroom. Realistically, Mario should have no shot with Princess Peach who is taller, better looking, and, ya know, a princess. But like every Step Up movie ever made, the kid from the streets has some inexorable skill bursting from his seams that helps him win the heart of his betrothed. Mario’s skill: jumping, like pretty high.
That Mario has any chance with Princess Peach or perhaps more importantly that a middle-aged Italian plumber who has to split rent with his brother is the most suited member of the Mushroom Kingdom to save the oft-captured Princess from the country’s primary villain, Bowser–whose motives remain forever shrouded; is he looking for ransom? If so, Mario’s incessant coin collecting would seem to solve this problem with less flattened fungi and murdered turtles–raises a number of questions about the Mushroom Kingdom itself. Who are the hapless inhabitants of this kingdom and why is their hero a mustachioed plumber?
Released in the US only 136 days before Super Mario 64 and consequently the Nintendo 64 console, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars was the final Mario game released on the Super Nintendo and, despite rave reviews, was largely overshadowed by the 64-bit, 3-D masterpiece to be released shortly thereafter. But Super Mario RPG may be the most important Mario game ever, barring the original Super Mario Bros.
Theon Weber would argue that Super Mario 64 is the greatest game bearing the Mario name. As he explains in, Born With All You Need to Know,
Exploration was never a part of earlier Mario games. Even the near-flawless Super Mario Bros. 3 invariably directed the player left-to-right across two-dimensional landscapes, and the goal of every level was to reach the point of extreme rightness.
While Super Mario 64 changed this design geometrically, it still maintained it spiritually. Though the castle and various maps in Super Mario 64 were three dimensional spaces open for exploration, they remained independent, secluded trials to the ultimate goal that you were working toward: finding the Princess and consequently Bowser. Though the spatial dynamic of the series had changed, Super Mario 64 was fundamentally equivalent to its predecessors, except, of course, Super Mario RPG.
Though it may simply be a function of the RPG genre, Super Mario RPG was only linear insofar as there was a plot that needed to be progressed. If you wanted to earn experience and grind out a few levels, you could do that in any part of the world. If you had a gambling addiction and wanted to test your luck on some Yoshi races, that was available as well. But the open-world design–or perhaps semi-open–is only a catalyst for Super Mario RPG’s greatest achievement: character and world building.
Before Super Mario RPG, and even in most/all of the subsequent releases in the Mario franchise, the only information we had about Mario or the Mushroom Kingdom was what was apparent via gameplay: Bowser is bad, Mario loves the Princess, walking mushrooms were the enemies, etc. Despite Mario being a popular culture icon, the world he existed in was a nebula of random ideas. Games like Super Mario Bros. 3 introduced new enemies and backgrounds, and Super Mario 64 allowed you to explore Princess Peach’s castle, but this was akin to overhearing a conversation and presuming to know the whole story.
Super Mario RPG offers a glimpse of neighboring territories, socioeconomic dynamics, cultural tendencies, and dialogue–of which, importantly, you are not in control. Moleville is a small mining town populated by the lower class, moles who spend all day toiling in the mines in fear on an imminent collapsed shaft. Monstro Town is populated by reformed monsters, including the previously perpetually malevolent Goombas. The Mushroom Kingdom is inhabited mostly by scholars and salesman, explaining why a gruff plumber could be their most valiant fighter–though this still calls into question why Princess Peach is human.
Rose Town, however, may be the most interesting location in all of Mario lore. After entering the house of a local, you find a child playing with his action figures. Appropriately, there are figurines for Mario and Bowser, legendary combatants to all who live near the Mushroom Kingdom. But fighting alongside Mario is a foreign character, Geno. Though he eventually comes to life and joins your party, the dynamic is an interesting one: though Mario is a legendary character, he’s not the only show in town. Mario’s reputation as a remarkable leaper precedes him everywhere he goes in Super Mario RPG, but in Rose Town, the locals have stories and heroes of their own.
But the dialogue and story of Super Mario RPG itself are series changing. Bowser and Mario befriend one another, Bowser is shown to be something of a sissy, and the introduction of a bunch of new characters to the Mario lexicon are all permanent additions. This is something that Square and Nintendo understood when they designed the game: Super Mario Bros. 2 was a wacky Japanese knock off that got labeled as a Mario game, but it introduced Birdo, a character that has appeared in a number of Mario games, including Super Mario RPG. Geno and Mallow and Moleville and Rose Town and Smithy–ostensibly the game’s primary antagonist–are now all part of the Mario universe and, though they haven’t appeared again, are all very much a real part of Mario’s history.
Super Mario RPG did more world and character building than the dozens of preceding and subsequent Mario titles. The game doesn’t dismiss the series’ history as much as it rewrites it. Taken as a stand-alone title, Super Mario RPG is probably a one-off anomaly that earns cult classic status, but as a prominent member of the Mario lineage, everything that happened throughout the game, whether consciously addressed in subsequent titles or not, colors the experiences and personalities of Mario, Bowser, and the rest of the Mushroom Kingdom and its outlying provinces.