Many of today’s self-professed “Mario” addicts would have trouble naming the first Mario game where the best playable characters were Bowser, a giant marshmallow who could control the weather and a doll that came to life and shot cannon-balls out of his arm. To most gamers, Mario getting his ass whooped by a sensei the size of his mustache is not nearly as familiar an image as Mario ducking under Bowser’s feet to axe down the bridge. “Super Mario RPG” is as forgotten as “Mario is Missing!” in the franchise paradigm, and that just isn’t right.

Angela Cesere
Seriously, a zen character named Frogfucius? (Courtesy of Square)

The opening of “RPG” is a testament to the fact that every Mario game before this was just a prelude. Princess Toadstool is kidnapped and Mario voyages to Bowser’s Castle to bring her back and have a parade. But in the middle of the obligatory fisticuffs between hero and villain, a great explosion tosses both fighters from the castle, causing Bowser to lose his throne and his self-respect.

It only gets weirder. Mario must collect seven stars scattered throughout his universe -one remarkably larger than “Super Mario World” – in order to pacify an army of nether-worldly foes who engage in the utterly deplorable task of destroying falling wishes from Star Road. From here, Mario must fight a murderer’s row of enemies – be it old-school koopas or rabid dogs – and retrieve all seven stars.

The characters of “Mario RPG” are the single weirdest group of video-game characters I have ever encountered. Some of them are friendly: the neurotic townspeople who seem to be relatives of Toad, a parable-spouting frog named Frogfucius and brain-locked composer Toadofsky. The bosses who impede Mario’s quest are just as colorful. They include a Yoda-talking anthropomorphic bow named Bowyer, a spear-throwing pirate shark named Jonathan Jones and a giant wedding cake named Bundt. I have a special affinity for the ethereal Culex, who proclaims, “I am matter, I am antimatter . I consume time, and I will consume you!” Pretty badass, huh?

The genius of “Mario RPG” is how it makes its typically inaccessible genre friendly to a broader audience. It’s not too difficult and not too long (relatively, at least), and it’s peppered with enough familiar characters that plunging into a game genre so vastly different from the traditional side-scrollers doesn’t seem like such a scalding bath.

The only negative thing I can say about this game is that it ruined RPGs for me forever. This was the first RPG I had ever played and I haven’t touched one since. Any RPG I play for the rest of my life will be a colossal letdown, because I’m confident I will never play a more funny, engaging and satisfying game than this one. What other RPG would have the pop-culture sensibility to make one of its bosses a parody of the Power Rangers just a year after the first movie was released?

It’s hard to understand why this game doesn’t have the legacy of other Mario games, but I think I’ve figured it out. “RPG” was released in 1996, the same year as Nintendo 64. As soon as 64 came out, this game was inevitably overshadowed by “Mario 64,” which had better graphics and more accessible gameplay. Moreover, the strength of most RPGs is their complexity. Standard “Mario” fans who were used to simple storylines and games you could play for two minutes or two hours, might not have been ready for the many layers inherent in a game where five characters embark on a “Wizard of Oz”-like quest to save the world and find themselves.

Trust me, this game will help you see every Mario character in a new light. Buy it, play it and then burn every other RPG you’ve ever owned.

Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars (1996)

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