Both Nintendo and Square were on top of the gaming world in the mid 1990s; the SNES had pretty definitively won out over the Genesis with numerous high quality releases on their system and Square had begun to take JRPGs from the niche to the mainstream with two major hits in Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger. For fans of both, a crossover seemed like the most far-fetched of schoolyard dreams, but in 1996, it actually happened. A collaboration between the companies that meshed gameplay elements of both worlds starring Nintendo's iconic character and with CGI-rendered graphics much in the same style as Rare's hugely successful Donkey Kong Country franchise; it was, simply put, a dream come true.
Something immediately noticeable was just how much Super Mario RPG felt like, well, a Mario game. Not content to have the simple top-down view and action of most RPGs of the time, Mario RPG works in the platforming, powerups and general design of Mario in almost every element. The game utilizes an isometric perspective, which was still relatively new and novel at the time, and this allows not just for Mario's trademark platforming, but for some creative puzzles and minigames that required you to think in three dimensions. It did take a bit of practice to get used to operating Mario in 3D, but it was a nice primer for another legendary Mario game that would come out in the same year (that being Super Mario 64). Adding further to the theme, Mario's special moves were his iconic fireball and chainable "super jumps", and his weapons would include a wooden mallet (a la Donkey Kong) and kicking turtle shells at his enemies. Mushrooms would restore HP, flowers would restore FP for using special moves (and Flower Tabs/Jars/Boxes would boost the maximum), and on rare occasions one could find a hidden power star, which was used in very familiar fashion - running around and clobbering enemies while completely immune to harm. The nice thing was that you earned any experience the enemies would normally grant you through battle, too, so it became a thrill to use those precious few seconds to earn as many easy points as you could.
Super Mario RPG is also one of the first RPGs I can recall to put such a heavy emphasis on minigames. Not content to just have them as optional diversions alongside the main action, they're also integrated into the combat itself. Every attack the player has can be manipulated for extra damage with a timed button press, by holding and releasing the button at a specific time, mashing the button or rotating the D-pad. Fun stuff, though I do wish there was a bit more visual feedback for them; it's a little hard to tell from some prompts exactly when you're supposed to do the actions. Inversely, most enemy normal attacks (though not specials) can be blocked with a well-timed button press, reducing or even completely eliminating damage taken. With a bit of luck, one can also use an item without actually spending it (accompanied by the message "Get a freebie!"), or get a "Lucky" bonus that lets them earn extra experience or money if they win a guessing game after the match; if you guess it wrong, though, you either get no bonus or forfeit any you would normally earn.
There are plenty of optional side-games to see as well; in fact, almost every major area you encounter in the game has one. To name a few: Midas River has you travel down a branching river, followed by a timing-based platforming challenge, to try and collect as many coins as possible, with every 100 you earn getting you a bonus Frog Coin (spendable on a number of rare and powerful items). Yoshi racing doesn't operate quite as you'd expect, instead being more of a rhythm game - tapping buttons in time with the music will cause him to move faster, though you can spend a Yoshi cookie to gain a burst of speed in a pinch. Many of these do have tangible benefits for the player, but others are just for fun; one prominent example of the latter is Beetle Mania, a simple arcade-style game where you shoot at bouncing Koopa shells and try to set off large chains for maximum points. You gain nothing from playing it, but it is surprisingly fun and addictive.
The game features a lot of Mario's familiar faces - Goombas, koopa Troopas, Hammer Brothers, Thwomps and the like, but these are a surprising minority in the cast; nearly all of the characters and enemies one sees were created just for this game. However, very few of them feel particularly out of place, all fitting into the bright, cartoony feel of the Mario universe while still fitting in a lot of RPG archetypes. Enemies like bandits, shamen, plant and fish monsters and the occasional mimic all fit that mold nicely, while boss monsters like Mack the Knife (a creature riding a giant knife), Bowyer (a giant bow) and the Axem Rangers (a spoof of the Power Rangers, natch) are a bit more outlandish, but still work well with the general feel of a "Mario RPG". One notable exception is the game's "uberboss", which is definitely much more inspired by Square's RPGs than anything else (and even features the Final Fantasy IV boss theme during the battle), but considering they were one of the game's major contributors, it's allowable.
It is slightly ironic that a Mario-themed RPG doesn't feature Luigi as a playable character (or at all outside of a small, easily-missed cameo), instead opting to make Princess Peach and even Bowser playable; the former as the party healer, the latter as a heavy-hitting physical fighter (though ironically, he never uses a flame-breath attack). The other two rounding out the cast are Mallow the "frog", who is rather weak physically but utilizes a variety of weather-themed attacks to both heal and damage enemies; and Geno the animated doll, who has a good balance of stats, special attacks and buffs to aid the party.
As with any good Mario game and Square-developed RPG, it is a relatively simple game to pick up and play through casually, but mastering it is definitely a challenge. Probably the most notorious example of this is the Super Jump challenge; if the player becomes good enough to get 30 consecutive Super jumps they will unlock the Attack Scarf, an extremely powerful accessory for Mario. Going even further and getting 100 without missing a press will unlock the Super Jacket - a very game-breaking item that makes every fight, even the uberboss, trivial to complete. Doing it once is hard enough, but seeing seasoned speedrunners pull it off consistently and make their way through the entire game in only a few hours, using only the barest minimum of items to get there, is quite a thrill to watch. Even playing it as many times as I have, I've never managed to even get to 30; maybe one day, though.
Super Mario RPG, as its name implies, is the best of both worlds - a well-crafted RPG from Square as their popularity began to climb, as well as a high-quality platforming experience from the franchise that remains most closely-associated with the name, Mario. It works as a fun pick-up-and-play game for more casual RPG fans, but has enough depth and challenge for the die-hard gamers as well. It isn't hard to see why this one's still so highly-regarded, and why its fans are still clamoring for a true sequel more than twenty years after the fact. I know I am too; Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi both innovated on the original in a lot of ways, but they just don't have the same brand of charm and magic that good old Super Mario RPG did.
Platform: SNES, Wii Virtual Console, Wii U Virtual Console, SNES Classic
Released: 1996, 2008, 2016, 2017
Recommended Version: All the later ports are direct emulations of the SNES game.
Tags: JRPG, Fantasy, Prefab Characters, Turn-Based, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Combat Minigames, Mechanical Minigames, Optional Minigames, Save Only at Checkpoints, Short Campaign, Great Music, Humorous