Arriving later on in the Super NES’s lifecycle in 1996, Super Mario RPG from Nintendo and Square found huge success – and while it went on to inspire games such as Paper Mario, this unique Mario role-playing experience remained sequestered away on Nintendo’s 16-bit hardware – until now. Super Mario RPG returns on Nintendo Switch courtesy of developer ArtePiazza and its partners. This is a complete rebuilding of the original game boasting fully 3D graphics, a freshly arranged soundtrack and plenty of enhancements designed to introduce Mario’s role playing adventure to a new audience.
In its original form, Super Mario RPG follows the trend of pre-rendered visuals that had become popular during the mid-90s. Yet, despite this, Mario RPG’s isometric perspective and unique stylings ultimately lends it a different feel compared to most other games on the Super NES. It was as if players were invited to peak into a collection of intricately sculpted Mario themed dioramas – a visual design that Nintendo never really revisited.
In rebuilding the game on Switch, developer ArtePiazza has fully embraced this aesthetic. The isometric perspective and 3D rendered design return while the rest of the package has been polished up, modernised to deliver an even smoother experience. This new version of the game has been recreated from the ground up using the Unity Engine. The entire game world is now rendered fully in real-time 3D, yet remains faithful to the original – to the point where the new version even offers up a shot-for-shot remake of the SNES original’s attract mode. It’s delivered via pre-rendered video – likely to account for the many changes of location. Interestingly, this video, and others within the game, run at 60fps. It may sound bizarre but Super Mario RPG is perhaps the best example of video playback on the entire platform.
Once the game begins, though, it switches to real-time and despite switching to real-time 3D graphics, the Switch version manages to very faithfully recreate every scene, but with far more detail, along with more modern lighting and shading effects. The developer has also taken the time to adjust some scenes that either didn’t look so good in the original, or are simply better suited to real-time 3D. Another big improvement in my book is the world map – it retains the level selection concept of the original but the map itself fills the screen and is presented as a seamless whole.
It’s an excellent addition and this ‘extension’ concept applies to all maps. In the original game, the isometric environments were surrounded by a solid colour so anything outside of the map area simply didn’t exist. This new version solves that by expanding the map beyond the playable bounds which helps give the impression of a large environment. As you progress, this approach to visual design continues – while the original is charming, I’m extremely pleased with the quality of the work in this remake. It’s one of the best examples of a visual overhaul I’ve seen in recent years.
That said, I’ve seen some discussion centered around animation and this is an interesting thing to consider – the original is a sprite-based game and, as such, each action has just two to three frames of animation associated with it. This can be used to create impactful movements such as attacking an enemy or jumping. The remake, however, opts to display all animation at full rate – that is, it uses 3D models that update at the same rate as the frame-rate. This can impact the intensity of each movement compared to a sprite based game but, in this case, I feel the impact is retained. It’s smoother yet still powerful. I think this applies to all the animation, in fact, it’s faithful yet enhanced.
Super Mario RPG runs on Unity and, frankly, I think it’s a showcase title for the engine as it relates to Nintendo Switch. Many of the selected techniques are rather old school yet they work so well. Reflections are a case in point: from the castle floor to the various bodies of water, Mario RPG relies on simple but effective planar reflections – that is, the geometry above the water is simply flipped and rendered upside down under the surface. With these smaller maps, it’s feasible performance-wise and the results are excellent and sharp. Acceptably detailed shadows – often neglected on Switch – also look good here, exhibiting none of the usual pixelation or filtering issues common to the system. Additionally, textures are super sharp and perfectly suited for this isometric perspective while loading is ultra-fast, sometimes even beating the Super NES original.
Furthermore, the developers managed to reach the maximum native resolution of the Switch in both docked and portable mode. That means native 720p in portable and native 1080p in docked mode. Dynamic res scaling doesn’t seem to be used and anti-aliasing is largely absent. With this game, the art is designed in such a way that it manages to look clean with anti-aliasing techniques and, as a result, it exhibits some of the cleanest image quality I’ve seen on Switch. This is a perfect example of how to build a game for the original Switch and, for that, I can only sing its praises.
However, there is one big caveat to mention, the only dark spot on an otherwise pristine release – performance. Super Mario RPG maintains its target of 60 frames per second at nearly all times. This is generally a very smooth experience that feels completely fluid. Unfortunately, it is not perfect and when it does drop frames, frame-times are wildly unstable and the whole image feels jerky – and the transition is jarring.
The good news, however, is that it’s nothing like the remake of Link’s Awakening in this regard where it could drop to 30fps fairly often and for longer periods of time. Mario RPG does not often drop frames in comparison – the problem stems from how those frames are dropped. It doesn’t behave like a typical triple-buffered app. It’s very strange and unfortunate given how polished every other aspect of the game is. It’s almost as if camera movement at sub-60fps does not move in concert with the reduced frame-rate, exaggerating the effect.
I’d also like to touch on the last major enhancement to the presentation – the soundtrack. Composed by Yoko Shimomura, it’s a whimsical score that perfectly walks the line between Square and Nintendo. This new version boasts a re-arranged score but also provides access to the original Super NES soundtrack as well. Like the visuals, these arrangements stay true to the original themes but improve the instrumentation and, in some cases, even expand the song. The world map song, for instance, is a short loop on Super NES but it goes much further in the new arrangement. In that sense, I think the soundtrack aspect of the game is also a success.
So, there’s so much to enjoy in Super Mario RPG. Honestly, this is a nearly – but not quite – perfect translation of a Super NES classic and whether you’ve played the original or not, there’s a lot to love here. The battle system still feels fresh while offering a little more polish, the storytelling is enjoyable and the game explores a unique take on Mario that is firmly derived from the Super Mario World era. It’s absolutely worth playing and, aside from the minor performance hiccups, is a solid game well worth your consideration.