Sunday, May 17, 2009

Infinite Coffee!?

No time for a video game review this weekend; however, it occurs to me that I never posted a link for last week's review. Should anyone be interested at all, it's here*, and it's for Super Mario RPG. I think it's pretty nifty, but that's self-promotion for you.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's my understanding that there is infinite coffee for students at Gary's on Sundays. "Infinite blank for students" is a formula I can really get behind.

* Due to the imminent deleting of the Game Informer Forums, you can't find it there anymore. But now, you can find it right here!

I'm stepping back a couple of generations from my last two reviews, back to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (the greatest home video game console in history).

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

Genre Bender

Is there anything Mario hasn't done? If there is, it's surely only a matter of time before one of Nintendo's idea men writes it down on the big board. The famous plumber has now starred in about six games which could be called "role playing games," a genre which seems to be about as far from his home turf as you can credibly get. One wonders how much of the fun the player experiences is solely due to the main character's presence, but each of these games has been a generally solid genre exercise.

Super Mario RPG, the first of these games, has a fantastic pedigree. Produced by Shigeru Miyamoto and developed by Squaresoft, you couldn't ask for a more capable team. It's a hybrid operation, so there's a fair bit of platforming to go along with the turn based battles and the NPC interaction. It's an impressive combination, but the platforming is clearly the weak link in the gameplay. Mercifully, only a few stages offer a significant level of difficulty in this regard. The problem is that the player is given an (almost) three dimensional playing field, but can only move in eight directions. Precise jumping of the kind found in Super Mario 64 is simply out of the question.

The battles resemble those of the Final Fantasy series, but are strictly turn-based. Mario and various allies punch, jump, and use magic against various enemies. In addition, most actions require player participation to achieve their full potential. For example, a tap of the "A" button at the proper time will turn a regular attack into a critical hit, or allow the player to dodge the brunt of an attack. Other button patterns affect the performance of special moves. This feature reflects Miyamoto's traditional emphasis on player control, and gives you a reason to pay attention to the battle. Unlike Final Fantasy, it's not a practical solution to fight most battles by holding down the action button.

As RPGs go, it's not especially difficult. I only had real trouble on a single boss fight,which took me a grand total of three attempts to beat. The game does not seem to be out to get you most of the time. In fact, defeating enemies at certain times will grant you special bonuses for the battle's duration; sometimes the character's health points will be restored, or the character will be granted an extra turn (and sometimes two or three!). Healing items are almost too plentiful; I had a giant surplus of them for most of the game. Progress is linear, with only a few elements of backtracking, as well as some secrets to be discovered in towns and houses. It's a mass-market RPG for the younger crowd, and not necessarily for dedicated fans of the genre.

The story, as far as the plot goes, is not impressive. It's definitely a step up from Mario's usual "save the princess" formula, but by RPG standards it's thoroughly cliched. It shines more brightly at idiosyncratic moments, particularly with the introduction of the minor villain Boomer, a kinetic ball of insanity with a tenuous grasp on reality. The dialogue between Boomer and his minions is hilariously bizarre, a trait that would be repeated in subsequent Mario RPGs. The game's main villain, Smithy, is not especially important. He does not even show his face until the final battle, where he proceeds with some stereotypical banter about showing the world his "true form." It's kind of a shame, as his design (a malevolent royal blacksmith?) is pretty interesting.

Graphically, it's a technological marvel, outdoing most of Square's other work on the Super Nintendo. Characters and backgrounds are depicted in a quasi-3D style, vaguely reminiscent of Donkey Kong Country, but with an isometric perspective. The backgrounds in particular lend themselves to the sort of "playground" look that typically characterises the Mushroom Kingdom. Enemy monsters are rendered with the same level of animation as the main characters, for a more consistent look than most Super Nintendo RPGs. Many of the spell and attack animations are reminiscent of their Final Fantasy counterparts.

Like most Mario game soundtracks, this one leans heavily on nostalgic use of various classic melodies. However, there are some original tracks as well, composed by Squaresoft's own Yoko Shimomura, that blend in well with the others, while retaining a distinct RPG flavor. The battle theme, for instance, uses a melody that isn't terribly different from a classic Mario song, but with an insistent beat that resembles other Squaresoft battle themes. The boss battle themes tend to resemble the themes from minor bosses of Square RPGs.

Super Mario RPG is fun, and easier to get a grasp of than many games of its ilk; it wasn't my first RPG, but I'm sure it was many people's. It's simplicity may annoy those with a more refined palate, but as far as I'm concerned, there's no shame in simple pleasures.


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