Some games just never get old, no matter how many times you play them. And some games pack so many secrets into their code that even the most dedicated player is bound to miss them all the first time around. Some games do both of these things, and those are the ones that I find myself playing again and again, year after year, to the exclusion of the shiny new graphical behemoths of modern gaming.
Only For Nintendo.
Super Mario RPG captured my attention immediately because it was not developed by Nintendo, but rather by Squaresoft (now Square Enix), the nigh-untouchable creator of the Final Fantasy franchise. At the time, 1996, I had barely started playing RPGs, and the format still felt incredibly strange and new to me. Hit points and turn-based battles had never had a place in Mario before, so part of me rebelled at the idea. But another part of me was very intrigued.
I don't know why I felt compelled to rent this game week after week as a kid -- I think that I probably could have bought the game twice with all the money my parents spent renting it for me over and over. In the days before memory cards and on-board hard drives, the cartridge itself saved your game, which meant that if I rented it from two separate video stores, I would have to make two separate save files. But I didn't care. I played the first ten hours of the game hundreds of times, and when I finally saved up my money to buy the damn game, I quickly filled up all the save files.
The game stands the test of time so well because it blends together the best elements of two franchises, Mario and Final Fantasy, into a unique game that almost creates its own genre. Think about it this way: Mario games are great because of their fast pace and engaging gameplay, but they suffer from a lack of cohesive world-building and story telling. Final Fantasy games do exactly the opposite: they focus on creating a compelling narrative, but the gameplay slows down considerably as a result.
Mario RPG manages to take the good but leave out the bad. The turn-based battle system is there, but with timed hits and special attacks requiring rhythm skills to execute correctly. The overworld exploration feels more like Landstalker than like Mario, but the basic platforming elements are there: run, jump, hit blocks with your head, go down pipes. And the Final Fantasy narrative structure guides Mario and co. along an adventure of grand scale, to locales more vibrant and fully realized than any seen in a Mario game before or since.
Is that a Beanstalk?
It's a formula that will probably never be truly duplicated, although the Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi series have done an admirable job in the attempt. Despite Mario's naturally cartoonish style, mature themes from Final Fantasy manage to sneak in as well: a blurred line between good and evil, a search for long-lost parentage, even an air of romance and heartbreak.
And then there's Culex, the Dark Knight of Vanda.
Okay, who let this jabroni in?
This strange boss seems like a villain lifted from Final Fantasy, although he's never appeared in any game besides Mario RPG. He boasts astronomical HP, brings four elemental crystals along, and spends most of his time destroying poor, dumb gamers who wander into his lair unprepared. Fighting him is completely optional, and most gamers never bother because he's easily tougher than the final boss.
But this easter egg is part of what made me, and countless gamers like me, keep coming back for more. This game was just packed with hidden challenges and treasures that most people would never see. Have you ever found your way to Grate Guy's Casino? What about the hidden area in Booster's Tower that turns you into 2D Mario from Super Mario Brothers? And have you ever managed to pull off 100 Super Jumps in a row?
I must have devoted years of my life to this game, sometimes starting a new file immediately after finishing the previous one. At first I named all of my files "Mario," but as time went by, and my sense of humor "matured," they inevitably became "Poop" or "Dong." It got to where I would delete a fully completed game, characters at maximum level, just to start a new game. It didn't matter if I deleted the file: I had three others just like it.
This game is truly timeless, and while the graphics may have aged a bit they still stand out as near the pinnacle of what the SNES had to offer. And the tunes, composed by Kingdom Hearts' Yoko Shimamura, stay stuck in your head for days, weeks, years, whole lifetimes.
So do yourself a favor and dust your cartridge. If you've never played the game before, you're guaranteed a fresh experience. And if you have, you'll undoubtedly find something new that you missed your first time around.